Draft Strategy Changing with the Times

Drafting strategies for fantasy football leagues used to be much simpler. For the most part, leagues had standard scoring, utilized a snake draft and most NFL teams had a starting running back and utilized the backup in either a receiving role or to spell the starter when they were tired. Based on that, the two-stud RB approach applied to pretty much every drafting position with the exception of the top few positions where taking a quarterback or wide receiver at the end of second round made some sense.

Now, there are snake drafts and auction drafts. There are re-draft leagues and dynasty leagues and leagues that allow a set number of keepers. There are even salary cap leagues (my favourite). There is standard scoring. There is points per reception scoring. There are individual defensive player (IDP) leagues. A friend of mine wants the NFL to make pancake blocks a statistic so there can be offensive line scoring. Maybe that’s a bit much.

In terms of the NFL, there has been a greater emphasis on passing the ball, with rules in place to better protect the QB and to make things tougher on defenders to actually defend receivers. Plus, very few teams desire to utilize a single RB for the majority of the carries. Those expensive team assets breakdown with all the pounding, so keeping them healthy and fresh by splitting the RB workload across two or more players is the philosophy many teams are using.

Basically, the NFL and fantasy football has changed. Unfortunately, fantasy football drafting strategies are slow to keep up with the changes.

If 2008 wasn’t the year to abandon the two-stud running back approach, then certainly 2009 is. Having reviewed the RB situation for all 32 NFL teams, it is abundantly clear that few fantasy football teams will be able to employ two stud running backs in 2009. There appear to be only five NFL teams that will rely heavily on a single RB this year. In fact, barring a surprise performance by a lower rated RB in a re-draft league, having two studs on one fantasy team is only a realistic option in dynasty leagues.

Going over each team’s roster, only the Vikings (Adrian Peterson), Jaguars (Maurice Jones-Drew), Bears (Matt Forte), Redskins (Clinton Portis) and Rams (Steven Jackson) will likely employ a true workhorse RB in 2009. It is possible that the Lions (Kevin Smith) and Browns (Jamal Lewis) may also use a workhorse approach but these teams are unlikely to have a strong offense this year. The league’s other 25 teams either rely on a running back by committee approach (RBBC), have a young back that they plan to develop or have an aging runner who is unlikely to handle a workhorse role.

For further proof of this trend, note the drop in production of top ten RB from 2000 to 2008. The average production of the top ten RB peaked at 286 points in 2003, hit a low during this timeframe of 228 points in 2007, and rebounded slightly to 241 points in 2008. The drop from the high in 2003 to 2008 is 15.7%.

Top 10 RB Production 2000-2008

Top 10 RB Production 2000-2008

Furthermore, it is getting more difficult to predict which RB will achieve top ten fantasy production. Last year, only five of the top ten RB based on average draft position (ADP) actually cracked the top ten at season’s end. Rookies Matt Forte and Steve Slaton as well as DeAngelo Williams, Michael Turner and Thomas Jones all surprised by finishing as top ten fantasy RB. The average ADP for these five backs was 72, in part due to Slaton’s ADP of 129. The 11th ranked RB in 2008 was rookie Chris Johnson and he would have cracked the top ten at the expense of Maurice Jones-Drew if he wasn’t held out of the Titans final game of the regular season.

As more and more teams move to the RBBC approach, it gets harder to differentiate between the second and third tier RB. Is Brandon Jacobs in a RBBC worth significantly more than Willie Parker in a RBBC? Barring injuries, touchdowns are likely to be the determining factor. Jacobs average draft position (ADP) is currently 17 whereas Parkers’ is currently 57.

For comparative purposes, the chart below provides the average production of the top ten WR over the same time period. A review of the two charts clearly indicates that the production of the average top ten WR on a yearly basis does not fluctuate as wildly as that of the top ten RB.

Top 10 WR Production 2000-2008

Top 10 WR Production 2000-2008

Also, it is much easier to predict which WR will finish in the top ten. In 2008, the only surprise top ten WR was Antonio Bryant. In fact, the only disappointments amongst players considered to be top WR were Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Braylon Edwards and Marques Colston. Ochocinco and Houshmandzadeh suffered to a lengthy injury to QB Carson Palmer, Edwards played in a Cleveland offense that failed to score a single touchdown over its last five games and Colston had injury issues.

With Brandon Marshall finishing 11th and Reggie Wayne 14th, it is possible to argue that the top two tiers of WR contained 15 players and ten of these 15 players finished in the top 11 or alternatively that 11 players finished in the top 14.

The conclusions that can be drawn for snake and auction drafts are quite simple. In snake drafts, it will be nearly impossible to acquire two stud RB with your first two picks. Therefore, most teams should consider a strategy based on using either their first or second pick on a WR. In auction drafts, because owners are willing to pay a high cost for a stud RB, getting two will leave your team with very few auction dollars remaining to fill out your roster. Because the odds of hitting on both of your RB are low, this strategy also seems outdated.

In terms of the QB position, the differentiation between the top tier and the second tier does not warrant spending a first or second round pick on one, or spending a high portion of your auction dollars on one.

All in all, make sure you put enough emphasis on the WR position in your draft. We may long for the days of grind it out, power football, but today’s NFL is a passing league. That, coupled with the onset of RBBC has devalued the RB position. Adjust your fantasy football strategy, accordingly.

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