The basic strategy for success in fantasy football appears to be changing. Where once securing two workhorse running backs with your top two picks was optimal, now multiple quarterbacks are flying off the board in the first round, and even tight ends are going in the second. Meanwhile, the era of the every-down running back appears to be dead.
The question then is whether this is an enduring paradigm shift, or a case of fantasy owners merely overreacting to recent short-term trends. To answer that, let’s examine these trends in more detail:
Tight ends being drafted in the first two rounds.
Last season saw two tight ends shatter the existing records for the position. Rob Gronkowski set single-season records for both touchdown receptions (17) and receiving yards (1,327) from a tight end, and Jimmy Graham wasn’t far behind with 1,310 yards and 10 touchdowns. Both are routinely going in the top 20 in fantasy drafts, which is unprecedented; only once has a tight end been taken within the first 30 picks since 1988 (Tony Gonzalez had an average draft position (ADP) of 28.76 in 2001).
But it’s not just those two tight ends having big seasons. The tight end position overall has been on the rise. Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams, passing has continued to climb in the NFL. But the increase in passing yardage hasn’t risen equally at each position. Wide receivers as a whole are putting up about the same yardage each year, and receiving stats for running backs have declined slightly. But tight ends have seen their production soar steadily. Since 2002, receptions among tight ends are up 35 percent, and yardage is up 50 percent. And this seems likely to continue this season with even rebuilding teams like Minnesota and Indianapolis set to feature two tight ends in the passing game.
The rise of the tight end can also be found beyond the star players. Over the last 12 seasons, the 12th-ranked tight end has put up increasing amounts of fantasy points – and that trend has accelerated the past four years. In 1999, the 12th-ranked fantasy tight end, O.J. Santiago, had 27 receptions for 428 yards and five touchdowns. The 12th-ranked fantasy tight end last season, Brandon Pettigrew, had 83 receptions for 777 yards and five touchdowns. And that 12th player matters because in a typical 12-team fantasy league that starts one tight end, a tight end’s value is only as great as the difference between him and a potential replacement off the waiver wire. This valuation of players in comparison to replacement level is also called value based draft value or VBD. As a result, Gronkowski’s season wasn’t the most valuable ever for a tight end. Gronkowski’s VBD was only seventh among all players last season. Kellen Winslow has the modern record for a tight end at fourth overall in 1980.
With two tight ends going in the top 20 in early mock drafts, what kind of stats would it take to justify that draft slot? The past three years have seen the 12th-ranked tight end produce an average of 97 fantasy points (670 yards and five touchdowns in standard leagues). We project the 12th-best tight end (Brent Celek) to have 765 yards receiving and six touchdowns for 112 fantasy points. The 20th-overall fantasy player has averaged 69 fantasy points above replacement the past three seasons. For a tight end to finish in the top 20, then, he’d need 181 fantasy points. Our projection of 12 touchdowns and 1,110 yards for Gronkowski has him just in the top 20 with 183 fantasy points, (and our projection of Graham is ever-so-slightly higher at 1,174 yards and 11 scores) so both indeed merit top-20 picks if they live up to our expectations. But are we being overly generous here?
On one hand, Graham and Gronkowski were the most or second-most targeted receivers on offenses that finished in the top three in passing attempts. Both players are imposing physical targets who pose mismatches for linebackers. Gronkowski has become an exceptional red-zone threat, and his 2011 success was no fluke as he had 10 touchdowns in 2010. In short, both players are unique talents in high-volume passing attacks.
On the other hand, much of Gronkowski’s projection is based on a high touchdown total, and receiving touchdowns are fluky, especially given all the fortuitous circumstances needed for a player to sustain a record pace. There have been 25 seasons in which a player had 15 or more receiving touchdowns. Those players had an average of 9.7 fewer touchdowns the following season – and only one player (Jerry Rice in 1987) improved his touchdown total the following year.
There are other reasons to think Gronkowski might see a drop-off. New England has added talent at receiver, and opposing defenses are likely to emphasize shutting him down in offseason game plans (NFL teams can never seem to adjust in-season). In fact, we think Graham is probably more reliable as the top target in New Orleans’ passing game, though that passing attack might not be the same with head coach and play-caller Sean Payton suspended for a year and Drew Brees having an unsettled offseason amid a contract battle.
The bottom line: By taking a tight end in the first 20 picks, you’re unlikely to make much of a profit unless Gronkowski or Graham repeat last year’s record-setting stats. If we merely regress them to the outstanding tight-end stats for which they’re projected, you don’t reap a significant profit until late Round 2 or early Round 3. Moreover, while tight ends have fewer injuries than quarterbacks or running backs, they’re not “safe” because production at even our projected levels lacks a proven track record at the position.
More quarterbacks are being drafted in the first round.
Last season was the Year of the Quarterback. Three players topped 5,000 yards passing with both Drew Brees and Tom Brady beating Dan Marino’s record of 5,084, set in 1984. Last year featured four of the top-six passing yardage seasons in NFL history, as well as four of the top-12 seasons in passing touchdowns.
The records are not a surprise given the league’s current trajectory. Last season the NFL averaged an all-time record 229 passing yards per game, and the number of pass attempts per game continues to see a steady climb from the 1970s to today. Rule changes and greater acceptance of passing-oriented offenses has shifted the play-calling balance toward passing and away from rushing. (The actual number of rushes has remained constant, while the number of pass plays and overall plays has grown).
Yet, for much of the previous decade, the quarterback position became less important in fantasy football, as running backs dominated the first round. Since 2002, two or fewer quarterbacks have been taken in the top-12 picks each season. But after last season’s passing records, as many as four quarterbacks appear set to go in the top 12 in many fantasy drafts this summer.
Part of the appeal is recent stability at the position. In each of the past two years, three quarterbacks in the top five in fantasy points were in the top five again the following season, and eight of the top 12 quarterbacks were in the top 12 the next season. Odds were if you took a top quarterback, he was likely to return value above what was available on the waiver wire. That’s in stark contrast to the preceding eight-year period (2002 to 2009) when an average of just 1.7 quarterbacks repeated in the top five the next season and 5.6 quarterbacks finished in the top 12. It used to be nearly a 50/50 proposition whether the quarterback you drafted was better than an option on the waiver wire – or another team’s bench.
While the overall passing stats continue to rise, the recent success of top quarterbacks in fantasy terms is largely due to the decrease in injuries. From 1998 to 2006, it was almost a coin flip whether a quarterback you drafted in the top-75 picks stayed upright. During that period, 38 percent (26 of 67) of quarterbacks taken in the top 75 overall did not finish the season in the top 12 at their position. Of those 26 quarterbacks, 18 missed significant time with injuries, and eight were benched. Since 2007, those drafted in the top 75 have finished outside the top 12 at their position at the same rate, but the elite quarterbacks are staying healthier. Just two of 17 quarterbacks since 2007 who were drafted in the top-25 overall failed to finish in the top-12 among quarterbacks: Tom Brady in 2008, due to a torn ACL, and Michael Vick last season when he missed three games with broken ribs.
So is this recent trend of quarterbacks staying healthier and more productive something on which fantasy owners can bank?
On the positive side, NFL rules continue to favor the passing game with continued benefits for receivers and quarterbacks. Examples include banning helmet-to-helmet contact with quarterbacks in 2002, an emphasis on rules preventing illegal contact with receivers in 2004, a ban of hits on quarterbacks below the knees in 2006 and contact to the head of defenseless receivers in 2009. Each change has helped the passing game and had the result of reducing quarterback (and wide receiver) injuries.
The increase in passing has also meant that the top quarterbacks have averaged more fantasy points the past five seasons. A quarterback with an ADP in the top-25 overall earned 78 percent more fantasy value (as measured in VBD) in the period from 2007-2011 than the period from 1998-2006. Those quarterbacks were also more reliably productive than similarly priced players at other positions, as the VBD for top-25 overall ADP quarterbacks was higher on average than top-25 overall ADP running backs or wide receivers.
But the recent trend of top quarterbacks staying healthy is but a small data sample, as we’re talking about just 17 quarterbacks drafted in the top 75 since 2007. The rules may increasingly favor keeping quarterbacks upright, but QBs still take plenty of punishment. And of the 20 injuries that befell quarterbacks drafted in the top 75 ADP the past 13 years, plenty were of the variety (elbow, broken hand, knee injury while running) that new rule changes wouldn’t prevent.
And for a quarterback to warrant a first-round selection, he’d need to be significantly better than the 12th-ranked signal-caller. We project the 12th best quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) to have 3,983 yards and 27 touchdowns passing, with 155 yards and two touchdowns rushing for 335 fantasy points. Because the 12th-overall fantasy player has averaged 89 fantasy points above replacement over the past three seasons, for a quarterback to finish in the top 12, he’d therefore need 424 fantasy points. Our projection of 40 touchdowns, 4,761 passing yards, four rushing touchdowns and 313 rushing yards makes Aaron Rodgers the only quarterback expected to finish above that mark. That’s quite a high bar considering Matthew Stafford finished last season with 424 fantasy points – and he had the third most passing attempts in NFL history.
We’ve also seen periods where a small crop of quarterbacks looked dominant and reliable but then experienced sudden drop-offs. Peyton Manning, Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb all finished in the top-10 in fantasy value in 2004. All three were all taken in the top 20 in ADP before the 2005 season. Culpepper (knee) and McNabb (sports hernia) missed significant time with injuries, and Manning declined from 49 touchdown passes to just 29. All three players finished outside the top 45 in total fantasy value. And the last time four quarterbacks were taken on average in the first round (2002), only one finished the season ranked in the top 20.
The bottom line: Are Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Cam Newton less injury prone than quarterbacks a decade earlier? I’m not yet convinced quarterbacks have fundamentally changed their status as the riskiest fantasy position. Top-75 signal-callers in an average draft since 1998 have had a higher percentage of busts, i.e., those not in the top 12 at the end of the season, than running backs (those not in the top 24), wide receivers (top 24) or tight ends (top 12). Despite the continued increase in passing stats, I’m still in the camp that likes to draft quarterbacks late.