Don’t become a slave to ADP

Fantasy football has two elements: you need to pick the best players, but you also need to know the market for those players.

Even if you knew for certain that an unheralded player would finish with the most fantasy points in the season, it would be foolish to take him with your top pick. You’d be ceding value to your opponents who would not think to take your player until much later (which Chris Liss hilariously illustrates at the end of each season).

But too often people become slaves to ADP. In fact, an article a few years ago argued that using ADP as your primary resource was the best drafting strategy. The notion has merit. It’s hard to beat the Wisdom of the Crowds on many risk management decisions. In the stock market, for example, the experts rarely beat the stock indexes. In fact, 84% of large-cap mutual funds generated lower returns than the S&P 500 in the five years before 2016, and 82% fell shy in the previous 10 years. (The data is a year old, but it’s easy to find more recent data or for other market segments.)

However, the Wisdom of the Crowds might be more applicable concept for stock market investing than fantasy football. For starters, when you are assessing your investments, you are typically looking at accumulating wealth over the long term. You don’t care if your portfolio is the best portfolio in any given year. You just want to be average or better and avoid falling behind inflation.

Your objective in fantasy football, however, is to win your league. And in a 12-team league, you have an 8.3 percent chance of success. It’s rare, and it’s maybe never happened, that a stock index beat every mutual fund in a year or finished in the top echelon

Maybe the objective in fantasy football should be to make the playoffs, since the final few playoff games are a crap-shoot in head-to-head formats. Even then, you’d have to finish in the top third or quarter of your league, depending on the rules. The Wisdom of the Crowds-based method wouldn’t give you the best team or even a playoff team that often.

To illustrate, let’s look at the individual players that were the most common on playoff teams in ESPN leagues (with a default 10-team, 1 QB format):

Most Common Players In ESPN Fantasy Playoffs

PLAYER POSITION PCT. OF LEAGUES ADP VBD Overall Rank
David Johnson (ARI) RB 66.8 9.2 1
DeMarco Murray (TEN) RB 64.5 50.4 5
Spencer Ware (KC) RB 62.2 120.4 36
Robert Kelley (WAS) RB 61 Undrafted 100
Davante Adams (GB) WR 60.3 Undrafted 22
Terrelle Pryor Sr. (CLE) WR 60 137.9 53
Matt Ryan (ATL) QB 59.5 121.4 9
Jordan Howard (CHI) RB 59.2 Undrafted 14
LeSean McCoy (BUF) RB 58.5 22.3 3
Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) RB 57.5 7.1 2

How many of these players would you have taken had you stuck to ADP by the book?  David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott were first rounders, so odds are following ADP religiously wouldn’t have made a significant impact in most leagues as to whether you got them, i.e., it was determined more by your draft position. And Kelley, Adams and Howard were not drafted in most leagues, so they wouldn’t have been on your draft-day roster. Ryan was the 21st quarterback in ESPN’s late August ADP. It’s unlikely he would have been drafted by a team following ADP, even as a backup. Both Ware and Pyror were so far down in their position rankings, it was unlikely you’d snag them late by ADP alone. Only Murray seems like a candidate for teams looking simply to scoop players who fell below ADP.

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The point here isn’t that you couldn’t have ended up with some of these players by blindly following ADP rankings, but that you often have to go outside of ADP to find league-winning difference-makers.

Following ADP then on principle is wrong, but it substantively it’s also flawed. It turns out discovering the wisdom of the crowds is hard to do. ADP rankings are heavily influenced by the default rankings of whatever mock draft or league management site you are using. It’s one of the main reasons why a player on Yahoo will have a higher ADP there than on ESPN or CBS, etc. Players who enter the player pool late will undoubtedly have their ADP rankings skewed. Jay Cutler this year will likely lag in his ADP rankings vs. where he’s going in real drafts since he started so low. Similarly, an injured player will be too slow to fall in ADP rankings, and a player with sudden improving value due to a role change won’t rise that quickly. Lastly, the ADP market might vary due to regional or league-specific biases. Randall Cobb currently has an ADP of 111.04 in 12-team Fantrax leagues, but I’d be willing to bet it’s much higher in any league based in Wisconsin.

Maybe there’s an ADP source that can weed out these biases and have large enough samples of recent drafts to show more real-time wisdom-of-crowd thinking. But for most sources, these are serious issues you must keep in mind – so much so that blindly following an ADP list may not be any more reflective of the collective wisdom than using your own rankings.

However, most importantly off all is the psychological aspect of ADP rankings. As my Draft Kit Podcast co-host Chris Liss says, knowing ADP corrupts your judgment completely after awhile. ADP tells you when it’s permissible to take players, and that narrow range provided by ADP will eventually supplant your own sense of what players are worth. You may end up viewing a player with an ADP of 40 as a fourth rounder even if you would have taken him in Round 2 had you never been exposed to anyone else’s view. Basically, exposure to ADP erodes your preferences from the process after a while.

That’s a serious downside because it negates your ability to do your own player evaluation and have your results generate feedback, enabling you to improve every year.

ADP is a great tool to use to get a sense of the market. We certainly watch it at RotoWire (and we have a new ADP page that brings in data from five different sources. It also has AAV, average auction values, as well). However, ADP, AAV and other market rate metrics are only tools to use to see if you are making a pick way out of line with the consensus. If you are taking a player more than two rounds away from ADP, you run the risk you’re giving up too much value. Or you risk passing on a player you like if you’re not aware that he’s not likely to come back to you for your next pick. But outside of using ADP to gauge that risk, you’re better of trying to beat the crowds with your own homework and independent judgment, refined each season by your own successes and failures.