Breaking down breakouts

Finding value in the back end of drafts might just be harder than you think.

Ah, draft day. The best part of the season. The time when every pick you make feels like it has potential to be the one that defines your season. All-Pro heroes. Overlooked veterans. Rookies so obscure your friends will tell tales of your late-round savvy many seasons from now. That’s really what we all want, isn’t it?

We all go into drafts with our lists of the sleepers and the rookies we love for late round picks. It’s one of the best parts of drafting. It’s also vital to building a competitive team to make up ground from bad picks we may have made during the opening rounds of the draft (Jamaal Charles, 2016 — I’m looking at you).

There’s one small problem with this: it turns out that gaining ground in the back half of a draft is actually a lot more difficult—and rare—than people think.

Dave and Dave discuss finding draft value in depth in Fantasy Outliers Podcast Ep. 1:

Meta-Analyzing Drafts from 2009–2017

That’s right, I said meta. When Fantasy Outliers launched, one of the first things we analyzed was what the player value distribution in average drafts actually look like. To do this, we evaluated the last 8 years of drafts from a selection of competitive fantasy leagues (spanning 2009–2017) using Average Draft Position (ADP) and Total Season Value (Fantasy Outlier’s baseline metric for player performance compared to the average at their position) as our two axes. We did this because we wanted to learn about the Total Season Value people could expect to get from picks at different points in drafts.

We learned a lot from this meta-analysis, but one thing really shocked us. Charting drafts in this way showed us a clear picture of where value is in a typical draft and where it isn’t. Take a look at this chart of 2016’s draft.

The 2016 Draft: Total Season Value vs. ADP

Again—this chart shows every player’s Total Season Value (as measured against a replacement-level player at their position) plotted in the order they were drafted (by ADP). It’s a mouthful, I know, but the short version of it is this: players with results above the “0” baseline are better than than players below the baseline.

When we plot them in the order they’re typically drafted, a trend emerges over the years of our analysis: positive Total Season Values are heavily concentrated in the first third of the draft—while the last two thirds of drafts are basically wastelands of replacement level picks and players who hurt your team just a little.

Just how bad is it? Well, take a guess how many players have positive Total Season Value from pick 60 to the end of the draft. Hint: it’s not many.

In fact, it’s around 25 players total — or ~21% of the total picks. If we remove the 9 kickers and defenses that provided positive Total Season Value in this range (we’re mostly interested in position players with our sleeper picks anyway, aren’t we?) that only leaves 16 players (or ~13%).

Put simply: this means is that only 1.6 players per round on average in the last 2/3rds of any given draft give a positive value at all.

Put even more simply: slim pickings.

Real breakouts are rarer than Browns’ wins

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the number of late round players who have positive Total Season Values equivalent to great early round picks is an even smaller group still. Like… really small. Here’s a list of the non-kicker/non-defense players from 2016–2013 who had at least a +50 Total Season Value (which is equivalent to the best players in the first 60 picks) but were taken between picks 60–180 in ADP.

  • Devonta Freeman, 2015
  • Allen Robinson, 2014
  • Larry Fitzgerald, 2014
  • Cam Newton, 2014
  • Josh Gordon, 2013
  • Knowshon Moreno, 2013

That’s right. 6 players total across those 4 years. No one from 2016 met this criteria. Also, I’m from Cleveland so I can talk a little smack about the Browns (sorry, guys).

The 1/3rd + 2/3rds Rule

The distribution of player value that we observed is so consistent—and severe—that it’s changed the way I think about drafting. I’ve started to think of it as a new rule of thumb—The 1/3rd, 2/3rds Rule. Here’s what it means to me.

  • For the first 1/3rd of drafts: One thing is clear—your best opportunities to bank big Total Season Value players are in the first 60 picks. Players go negative at a much lower rate, and the real stars are almost always drafted here. You might have different ideas about how to deal with those facts, but my plan is to concentrate on picks that I feel the most confident about their stability. I’m going to try to avoid people with short track records (or no track records) or people with injury clouds over them in the first third of my draft as much as I can—even at a cost of higher potential value. It’s just too hard to make up big value past pick 60, so I want to try to make sure every pick I use here adds consistent value to my team.
  • For the last 2/3rds of drafts: One other thing is clear—it’s much easier to actively hurt your team with players you take in the last 2/3rds than it is to help your team. This leads me to think of a few different tactics. Once I get past pick 60 if I know I have to start a player I’m taking, I’ll be looking to grab someone who I think is close to replacement level because I don’t want to be hurt. If I’m at a point where I’m grabbing someone who will be on my bench, I’m going to still be ok with taking shots on players that I think are great. I’m just going to be ready for the fact that they probably won’t work out even if I really fell in love with them during the pre-season. One thing I’m definitely not going to do is take shots on tons and tons of sleepers in the late rounds—fantasy rosters just can’t afford the cost of starting someone who turns out to be a -6 week after week, even if they were hyped like crazy going into the season.

In conclusion—tell us what you think

So, now that I’ve thoroughly crushed your draft day dreams, we’d love to hear what you think about the analysis we did and how it’s making you reconsider how you’ll draft going into 2018. If you want to look at the results on a per year basis on our site, you can check that out here.

The key to building a great roster is getting value for each pick you make. Hopefully this analysis will help you know when to tread lightly and when to step on the gas during your drafts.

Dave and Dave discuss finding draft value in depth in Fantasy Outliers Podcast Ep. 1:

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