Play Your Cards Right
Play Your Cards Right By Justin Kirkland
What are a fantasy player’s goals when entering a 2020 draft? Get CMC? Get a tier 1 RB? Draft a well-balanced team? Fantasy players will go into a draft with a strategy only to see it get blown up after the first few rounds. When the draft ends and the dust settles, you hope you’ve accumulated enough assets to give yourself positional advantages on a weekly basis.
Let me begin with a Bruce Lee quote. “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water.” Lamar Jackson gets snagged the pick before you. So what! A league mate snipes your upside WR2. Who cares! Draft strategy varies from league to league and player to player. Some prefer RB-heavy teams while others stock up on prime pass catchers or elite signal callers. Your strategy must remain fluid based on how the draft unfolds. Someone in your league will undoubtedly make moves that the AI you’ve been drafting against would never make in a million years. The good news is that you don’t need 12 picks in the first round in order to field a team with top 12 upside. Year in and year out, the fantasy world is shocked by young ascending talent that takes that next step and players that receive chances due to injury and roster turnover. In 2019, Ekeler was my gem drafted in the 13th round. My 2018 team saw Conner go from a 1-week Lev Bell placeholder to a league winner. Oh, and then there was that time that Mahomes kid went for 50 TDs in his rookie season. The list goes on and on without fail.
Experienced fantasy players traditionally wait on QB and for good reason. Lamar Jackson took the NFL by storm in 2019. He led the NFL in passing TDs while only being outrushed by 5 starting running backs. The man had an average 2019 ADP in the 9th round. To expand on that notion, the top 3 QBs were taken in the 9th or later. Overall, 2019 QB1-QB12 had an average ADP in the 8th round. Patrick Mahomes, the 2019 QB with highest average ADP (2nd Round), ended the season at QB8. In a vacuum, QB8 is a strong finish, but certainly not worth the draft capital of a 2nd rounder. In 2020, and in most seasons, the smart move is to wait on QB. That being said, Lamar Jackson’s rushing floor makes him different from any other fantasy asset we’ve seen at the QB position. Barring injury, you may end up with the overall QB1, but why spend that high pick when Dak Prescott was the 2019 QB2 and drafted in the 11th?
The running back group is usually the most clear cut with regards to draft capital translating into fantasy production. In 2019, 67% of RB1s were drafted in the first 2 rounds. The 2 big surprises in the group were Aaron Jones and Austin Ekeler. Jones provided 19 total TDs on a decimated Packer offense that lacked any true receiving threats once Davante Adams went down. Ekeler was the beneficiary of a Melvin Gordon holdout and saw his running mate leave town this offseason. Mark Ingram was another example of a back that scored TDs at an unsustainable clip. With running backs, volume and goal line opportunities are the stats you’re looking for and you usually find that at the top of the draft. You’ll also want to monitor off season moves and news to understand if any backs are in line for increased workload. If nothing else, you want to leave your draft with a reliable high-volume back!
Going into the 2020 season, WR is looking like the skill position with the most depth. Michael Thomas separated himself from the rest of the WR1s with a historic 2019. 33% of WR1s were taken in the 1st and 2nd round. On the other end of the spectrum, Davante Parker and AJ Brown ended up as WR1s in non PPR formats after mostly going undrafted in leagues. Overall, WR1s averaged a 5th round ADP. When constructing a balanced lineup, locking down an elite WR option in the first two rounds is strategically sound. If you go down that road, remember that you can amass high end production in the middle rounds.
Traditionally, the TE spot is largely tied to whichever strategy you choose with your QB. Players who take a top 2 TE will usually wait on QB and vice versa. In 2019, 4 TE1s went undrafted and 2 of the top 4 TEs were taken after the 10th round. Travis Kelce and George Kittle remain the elite options at the position. If you aren’t able to pull the trigger on either of those players, you're best suited to wait on upside options. The 2019 average ADP of the TE1 was the 9th round.
We’ve presented data to back the notion that you can amass top 12 upside options with lower value draft assets. While you can create a balanced lineup with this strategy, you should still aim for the highest upside as not all top 12 options are made equal. 2019 saw all time performances at almost all skill positions. The QB1 outscored the QB12 by 36% (150 pts.) due to the high rushing floor from Lamar Jackson. The RB1 outscored the RB12 by 47% (167 pts.) after CMC essentially accounted for 2 positional players last year. The WR1 outscored the WR12 by 31% (69 pts.) after Michael Thomas secured the most receptions in a single season. Lastly, the TE1 outscored the TE12 by 51% (80 pts.).
Disparity aside, the 2019 data suggests the following: Focus on workhorse backs early. Secure wide receiver depth in the middle. Find late round value in upside signal callers and tight ends. Oh, and remember, the team you draft will not and should not be the team you end up with by the end of the season. Channel your inner Bruce Lee… Stay water!