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Historical ADP Draft Strategy: Going WRs Early and QBs Late

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of RotoWire.com. He's been elected to the hall of fame for both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and Fantasy Sports Writers Association and also won the Best Fantasy Baseball Article on the Internet in 2005 from the FSWA. He roots for for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and T-Wolves.

Each season I go into my fantasy drafts with an overall draft strategy based on my research of historical trends. I've had my share of success the past few years using a strategy that's heavier on wide receivers than many prefer. I figured I'd show you the math for why I think this strategy can be successful and would also give you some insight on how it works with this season's player pool.

The key to success in any fantasy draft is learning the rules and figuring out what strategy to employ. The scoring system and number of required starters at each position makes a big difference (check out Chris Liss' great primer for how to assess your scoring system). A league starting two QBs changes everything. A flex position that allows quarterbacks changes things dramatically. The number of running backs you can start vs. receivers changes the player pool. A 10-team league puts a premium on stars.

But in a regular 12- or 14-team league, here's the strategy I like to employ.

Early Round Strategy

There's a word you hear early and often in any fantasy draft. "Upside." This player has upside. If he puts it all together, imaging the upside. Some people's drafts are all about upside.

My draft strategy usually involves the more boring counterweight: floor.

In the first two rounds of my draft I typically focus on floor. What's the worst-case scenario for this pick? Yes, any player in the NFL can get hurt. But what's his true injury risk and what's the subpar scenario of performance if he stays healthy? In essence, which position in the first two rounds was the safest and offered the highest floor?

To figure out the optimal strategy, I compiled historical data since 1998. I used average draft position (ADP) from the thousands of leagues that draft on MyFantasyLeague.com and MockDraftCentral.com.

While receivers are safe early picks (yes, there has been just one bust in the 24 in the top 15 ADP since 1998), they decline at a rapid rate. Late-round running backs hold their value better than receivers. It's a compelling reason to take receivers early and running backs in the middle rounds. Quarterbacks have the highest attrition rate at almost every draft position.

POS ADP Total VBD Avg. VBD No. of Picks “Busts” Bust Percentage
Qb Top 5 -1644.4 -411.1 4 2 0.5
QB Top 15 1071 39.67 27 6 0.22
QB Top 25 1678 37.3 45 11 0.24
QB Top 50 763 8.11 94 34 0.36
QB Top 75 710 4.86 146 56 0.38
WR Top 5 0 0 0 0 0
WR Top 15 1665 69.36 24 1 0.04
WR Top 25 3955 56.49 70 8 0.11
WR Top 50 6190 31.58 196 52 0.27
WR Top 75 -6968 -23.62 295 103 0.35
RB Top 5 4399 122.19 36 3 0.08
RB Top 15 10444 94.09 111 16 0.14
RB Top 25 14011 83.4 168 28 0.17
RB Top 50 17354 67.52 257 54 0.21
RB Top 75 18796 54.32 346 93 0.27
TE Top 15 0 0 0 0 0
TE Top 50 769 48.06 16 2 0.13
TE Top 75 1239 25.28 49 13 0.27
K Top 125 -274 -4.81 57 35 0.61

[Fine print: I used the following league parameters in the math: 12-team league with 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE and 1 K. I used this typical fantasy league scoring system: (4 points passing TD, 6 points rushing or receiving TD, 1 point per 20 yards passing, 1 point per 10 yards rushing or receiving and no points gained or lost for interceptions, turnovers or receptions) VBD = Value Based Drafting. This number is the number of fantasy points above the replacement level (in this example, there are 24 running backs, so VBD = value over the 25th-placed running back in fantasy points). There haven't been any WRs taken in the top five ADP of drafts and no TEs taken in the top 25 ADP since 1998. Also, be aware of small sample size variations below. Top 50 TEs have been healthy, but there have only been 12 taken in the top 50 ADP since 1998. I wouldn't take a quarterback in the top five overall picks of any draft (unless it's a league that starts two QBs), but I wouldn't overly put stock in the 50 percent bust rate since there have been only four instances.]

OK, all that is great, but shouldn't you worry about upside at some point?

Yes, there are some upside to players that in my opinion offsets the downside risk. While wide receivers are generally safer picks, running backs have a higher upside. And that's particularly the case at the top of each year's consensus ranking. The top two spots in particular for running backs have been off the charts. Think Marshall Faulk, Emmitt Smith and LaDanian Tomlinson in their prime. These players practically won your league single handedly. You don't want to skip taking a top running back at the top of the first round.

Here's a chart showing the historical return on the top 24 draft slots and what running backs returned at each spot. Look at how the top two spots stand out.

Round Pick Fantasy Pts AVG. VBD   AVG. RB VBD
1 1 278 144   144
1 2 254 120   130
1 3 226 64   75
1 4 198 20   57
1 5 235 76   89
1 6 233 91   96
1 7 176 28   42
1 8 227 87   90
1 9 220 58   49
1 10 247 102   101
1 11 236 81   70
1 12 187 48   53
2 13 178 45   32
2 14 207 59   109
2 15 195 52   69
2 16 167 47   49
2 17 197 31   50
2 18 209 48   71
2 19 214 67   38
2 20 162 32   38
2 21 215 46   14
2 22 195 49   71
2 23 177 28   5
2 24 162 23   28

So if I have a top-five pick, I'll take a RB with my first pick. So generally speaking, I'll usually choose to go RB-WR, WR-RB or even WR-WR with my first to picks. And I'll try to get two WRs in my first three picks if possible.

The math shows this is the best strategy. Using the same historical numbers, I broke down how taking each position fared in the first five rounds. Going WR-WR-RB or WR-RB-WR has fared the best on average among all the draft slots (the Overall column). The strategy does vary a bit by draft slot. When selecting in the top five picks, it is better to take a RB first (thus the chart above with the historical return on top-five RBs).

By pick 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12   Overall
RB-RB-RB-WR-WR 155 144 190 225 210 130 106 206 235 244 226 150   253
RB-RB-WR-WR-RB 160 194 201 232 202 203 167 188 239 248 212 111   295
RB-WR-WR-RB-RB 176 219 189 227 233 194 238 262 216 285 202 145   493
WR-WR-RB-RB-RB 112 126 171 216 240 153 274 268 241 367 300 181   528
WR-RB-RB-RB-WR 101 90 193 164 215 94 196 286 256 328 278 152   477
WR-RB-WR-RB-RB 106 139 204 171 207 167 256 268 259 331 264 114   519

If you are in a league that only required 2 WRs vs. 3 RBs (say starting 2 RBs and a Flex), it's less likely I'd take a WR early. For example, in the recent Sirius XM Fantasy Experts/Hosts League I took Chris Johnson and Michael Turner with my first two picks. My wide receivers (DeSean Jackson, Chad Ochocinco and Braylon Edwards) are not ideal. But that league starts only 2 WRs along with 2 RB, 1 Flex (RB, WR or TE), 1 TE and 1 QB. With only 2 WRs vs. 3 RBs (if you start a RB in the flex), the need for a top WR isn't as strong. I'm happy to roll with three RBs each week. I took four lottery pick RBs, plus Javon Ringer as Chris Johnson holdout insurance (it's doubtful I'd start Ringer and Johnson). Hopefully one develops into a strong third RB.

If the the league starts 3 WRs and allows you to play 3 or fewer RBs, then I'm playing it safe in the first two rounds and taking upside running backs later.

Wait, Wait on Quarterback

Unless it's a two-QB league or a league that uses a quarterback in the flex position, I'm generally the last person in my league to select a quarterback. Look at the historical bust rates on quarterbacks: 36% of those taken in the top 50 are likely to finish outside of the top 12. I know people are going to point to last year where only Tony Romo was a bust in the top ten ADP quarterbacks, but one year is a small sample size. It was only 2008 when four of the top seven quarterbacks (and all taken with an ADP of 50 or less) were busts (Carson Palmer, Tom Brady, Derek Anderson, Ben Roethlisberger). Injuries strike the quarterback position unevenly each year, but they happen (no one ever considered Tom Brady an injury risk before 2008).

What's more, the gap between the top few quarterbacks just isn't that great. There was only a 10 percent gap between the third-best QB last year (Peyton Manning) and the 10th-best QB (Eli Manning) on a per-game basis. Compare that to the 47 percent gap between the third-best RB (Adrian Peterson) and the 20th-best RB (Cedric Benson) on a per-game basis last year. Sure, it always comes down to picking someone who can finish in the top 12 for quarterbacks (league with one QB starter) and top 24 for running backs (for leagues that start two RBs), but the gap is narrow enough for QBs that it's worth loading up on RBs and WRs rather than securing a top QB.

If a league has 14 teams, I'm a little more likely to take a quarterback earlier, but I think the math above still applies.

All of this changes dramatically if your league starts more than one quarterback or if you can use a quarterback in a flex position. Then the dropoff to the 24th or greater quarterback is dramatic and you need to secure one or two top quarterbacks early.

Quantity Over Quality at RB

I watch a ton of college football and probably five full NFL games every week along with major chunks of every game (highlights, Red Zone Channel, flipping on Sunday Ticket). And I read tons of practice reports and research the offensive schemes of each team. But even then I'm not a scout. I'm an agnostic drafter. I play a few hunches, but generally speaking I don't really know who's a better talent than you do. As a result, I try to pick backs in the right situation who could break out such as a rookie running back behind an injury prone veteran in a strong offense (Delone Carter) for example.

So after I go safe early in drafts, typically with two WRs in my first three picks, I take a lot of running backs. In the Sirius XM draft I mentioned above, five of my seven reserve spots were running backs. Running backs have more upside in in the later rounds than other positions, as their VBD after the top 25 ADP beats every position and the gap widens further after the top 75 ADP.

Get an Elite TE or a Scrub

When it comes to tight end, I'm taking a player I feel confident will finish near the top of the tight end producers or I'm punting on the position. Each year it seems the tight end pool is deep, yet there's a wide gap between the top and bottom of the tight ends. Last year's third-best tight end (Dallas Clark) was 33 percent better than the 10th-place tight end (Zach Miller) on a per-game basis. Yes, I know Clark got hurt and Gates also missed games, but the per-game basis illustrates the difference between the elite and second tier at the position. Having a top tight end gives you a big matchup advantage over your opponent in a weekly head-to-head format.

And Gates gives you a huge edge. He averaged 13.8 fantasy points per game last year. That's 41 percent more than second best and more than double 10th place (Zach Miller). With all the key pieces of the San Diego offense returning, I'm very high on Gates this year. I took him in the third round of the Sirius XM experts draft. And I took him in the third round of a draft among the RotoWire staff in July. He certainly wasn't coming back to me in the fourth round.

I may take Jason Witten, Dallas Clark or Vernon Davis in the fifth or sixth round. I'm rarely to be in position to take Jermichael Finley because there's always a believer in his upside and he goes close to Gates. I'm wary of Finley's injury risk, but I put him in the same group. If one of those don't fall to me at a nice value, I'm likely taking a tight end late and using the waiver wire all season to mix and match at the position.

Never Take a Kicker or Defense Until The Last Two Rounds

If your last two picks are not a Team Defense and Kicker, I'm usually scoffing at you in my draft. Both positions have a high degree of variance from year to year. There's little difference in total points between the top tier and the bottom tier. And it's guaranteed that there's always going to be a kicker or defense available in free agency. Taking two defenses is indefensible unless you have limited free agency moves or very large reserve rosters. There's probably some crazy Team Defense scoring system that makes them very valuable, but that's not a league I'd typically be in.

IDPs are a little different depending on the scoring system. Even then, I'm not taking an IDP with anything other than a late mid-round pick at best. Any IDP setup is usually very volatile. And there's always a ton of options on the waiver wire. With liberal free agency you can play matchups each week. The only exception is if you're required to start a defensive linemen. There are few defensive linemen that get high tackle and sack totals, so take those earliest among your IDP picks (but still don't go above a late middle-round pick).

Rarely Take a Backup QB

In a 12-team league without huge reserve rosters (say 5-7 bench spots), there are always quarterbacks available on the waiver wire. Many teams may go into the season with two or even three quarterbacks on their roster, but it's a good bet they won't keep them all season. When their top QB gets past his bye week, they'll usually drop their backup QB. And if they have pressing needs at RB or WR, the backup QB (and especially the third QB) is usually the first drop. Plus injuries happen, so there's fodder for an upgrade at QB or to get a backup (see Michael Vick last season).

It's definitely a risky strategy and I get burned some years, but taking an extra RB or WR (especially in drafts early in the preseason) I think more often pays off. It's better to have a valuable WR or RB on your bench than a backup QB. You can usually trade for a QB if you have a valuable resrve RB or WR. Or worst case you take a scrubby quarterback off the waiver wire when your backup has a bye and take your lumps for just one week (or get lucky).

Rarely Take a Backup TE

I also rarely take a backup tight end. There's almost always a tight end on the waiver wire when your starter has a bye. Plus, most teams won't keep two tight ends just like they won't keep a second or third quarterback for too long (unless you have really deep benches). And typically only the top tier of tight ends are difference makers, so a second tight end just won't move the needle for most in a trade. And it's hard to trade a good tight end. Teams only need one and most usually have one they think is a top-ten tight end, so you end up having to trade additional players to get a deal done.

All backups of WRs & RBs, mostly RBs

If you strike gold with a running back, it's worth a lot in your league. You can start them in a flex spot. They're worth a ton in trade value. There are always wide receivers, quarterbacks and tight ends available in typical leagues, but running backs who are set to get significant touches every week are a rare commodity. There were only 35 running backs who had more than 150 carries last year (that's less than 10 carries per game) and just 40 had 150 touches (rushes + receptions). That's about three running backs per team in a 12-team league who are getting at least minimal activity each week. And it's a good bet 10-15 of those RBs are hurt or benched in any week. So if your league starts 36 RBs with a flex player, there's almost always a team with a need for a running back who gets the ball.

So I almost always take running backs with any chance at a starting job or upside for my bench. When those dry up I'll take some receivers.

When I get to the middle of the season, I'll jettison some of those running backs for help at other positions or backups at QB or TE when bye weeks approach. But coming out the preseason I want as many lottery ticket running backs as I can have on my bench.

Applying the strategy to this year's draft

The big question for this season is if taking two wide receivers early in your draft is as strong a strategy as it has been in the past. At first glance it appears the top receivers on the ADP charts don't have the pedigree of previous years. Back in 2008 the top three receivers by ADP each had three or more seasons finishing in the top ten of receivers by fantasy points: Randy Moss (7), Terrell Owens (7), Reggie Wayne (3). But Andre Johnson and Roddy White have each finished in the top ten in fantasy points at receiver three times while Calvin Johnson has finished in the top ten in two of his four seasons. The era of Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison may have been a golden era in dependable fantasy receivers, but the current crop at the top isn't totally lacking a pedigree to think they'll be stable producers.

In a 12-team or 14-team league, here's my strategy. I think there's a big four at running back with Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson (depending on your risk tolerance for his holdout). If it's a PPR league, then I'd made it a big six since Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy can be counted on for large receptions totals. I'm also high on Rashard Mendenhall. So for me it's a top seven. If I get any of the top seven spots I'm likely going to take one of those running backs. Later in the first round I may take a receiver with my first pick, likely Andre Johnson since I think he has the highest floor for any receiver.

Ideally I'd like to grab two of my top four receivers (Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Miles Austin). But there are not two receivers who stand out above the pack like Moss and Owens in their heyday. I'm also happy getting Hakeem Nicks, Roddy White, Greg Jennings, Vincent Jackson and Reggie Wayne. I know everyone is down on Wayne, but I think he has a higher floor than most. Peyton Manning always makes sure his No. 1 wideout gets his touches. If his skills are declining, he'll make up for it on volume. And you can get him late in many leagues where it's trendy to say he's out of favor. But whatever you think of Wayne, I'm going to try to leave the first three rounds typically with one RB and two of those WRs.

And if a lot of those receivers are gone, then I'll take Gates as early as the third round. And if I don't get a top tier TE that I talked about above at a good value in the fourth round or later, then I'll punt on TE until late.

As for quarterback, there is a compelling case to be made for Michael Vick and taking him early. On a per-game basis last season he was 21 percent better than the second quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Even if he misses a few games and keeps that pace, he may single handedly win your league. However, he's had injury issues and I'm wary of going against the historical risk metrics for quarterbacks, especially for running quarterbacks. Vick's improvement as a passer may also have the Eagles trying to find ways for him to run less and take fewer shots, and so much of his value comes from his legs.

Beyond Vick, I think Tony Romo will be a value in most leagues (current ADP of 68 overall on MDC). He finished in the top nine of fantasy points among quarterbacks in three consecutive seasons before last year. And last season was a fluke injury (broken collarbone), not something like a strained knee or elbow that's going to continue to get worse. I'm also quite content to take Ben Roethlisberger in the middle to late rounds, since last season he finished 8th in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks. Otherwise, I'll punt quarterback completely and take a high upside guy like Matthew Stafford or a safe producer like Joe Flacco as late as possible.

The lottery running backs I'm grabbing in quantity include:

Mark Ingram NO - Big buzz on his play in the preseason and huge upside in prolific offense.
Daniel Thomas MIA - Should get the bulk of workload right away.
Ryan Williams AZ - Backup to oft-injured starter.
Delone Carter IND - Backup to oft-injured starter in prolific offense.
CJ Spiller BUF - High upside skill set if he just gets touches.
James Starks GB - Backup to oft-injured starter in prolific offense.
Rashad Jennings JAX - Backup to starter with injury worries.
Roy Helu Jr. WAS - Upside play in the Washington backfield lottery.
DeMarco Murray DAL - Backup to oft-injured and unestablished starter in prolific offense.
Kendall Hunter SF - Backup to starter coming back from injury.
Montero Hardesty CLE - If it was the Browns' offensive line and not Peyton Hillis, maybe Hardesty produces if Hillis gets hurt. (Yes, Hardesty has to get healthy first.)
Alex Green GB - Third string, but another rookie in a prolific offense behind two injury/non-established backs.
Evan Royster WAS - Productive college player who's another lottery ticket in an unstable backfield.
Taiwan Jones OAK - Speedster behind two backs who have had injury issues and offense committed to running the ball.

Obviously the price must be right for me to take these players (Ingram and Thomas may have ADPs in the 2nd to 4th round by draft day), but I'm grabbing as many as I can in the middle to late rounds.

That's the plan for this year. I hope the thought process here helps you craft your own winning draft day plan.