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Draft Day 2009 – Lessons Learned

We witnessed one of the most widespread shifts ever in basic fantasy football drafting strategy this past season. An unprecedented number of owners chose to abandon the venerable and widely used Two-Stud-Running-Back Drafting Strategy (2SRBDS) and construct the core of their teams using one, two or as many as three wide receivers — particularly in leagues with point-per-reception scoring (PPR). Just a short time ago, bypassing running backs in the first or second round of a draft to procure wide outs would have been unthinkable, but that prejudice has finally disappeared.

THE WIDE RECEIVER WAY

The Stud-Wide-Receiver Drafting Strategy (SWRDS) has finally achieved mainstream acceptance, serving as a viable approach in leagues that require you to start two or three wide outs. This past season, owners in start-2WR leagues usually began their drafts by going WR-WR-QB-RB, WR-RB-WR-QB or WR-WR-RB-QB, while owners in start-3WR leagues commonly kicked off their drafts by going WR-RB-WR-WR-QB, WR-WR-QB-WR-RB or WR-WR-WR-QB-RB. Why has it become trendy to use wide outs as the key building blocks of fantasy teams, marginalizing the running back position? Why has the 2SRBDS suddenly become obsolete?

The 2SRBDS had slowly started to fall out of favor in fantasy football circles at least four years ago due to the extensive use of “running-back-by-committee” (RBBC) in the National Football League. Runners used to rank as the most productive and consistent fantasy scorers, because they usually received a steady number of touches each week in what was a more run-oriented league. However, as we all know, nearly all NFL teams — even ones with elite backs — are now utilizing some form of RBBC. Touches and fantasy points obviously are split between two or sometimes three running backs on each team in a frequently unpredictable time-share, diluting each player’s fantasy value.

Selecting a running back(s) with a high draft pick(s) also had become an impractical and notably risky proposition due to the growing number of high-round underperformers and busts at the position each year (we saw a lot of them during the 2008 season). In addition, the NFL has become a more pass-happy league in recent years, which is why the top performers at the wide receiver position earned the distinction of rating as the more reliable or “safer picks” that running backs had used to be.

TABLE 1 – TOP FANTASY SCORERS – RB & WR – 2009

RANK

PLAYER

TEAM

POS

FP (PPR)

1

Chris Johnson

TEN

RB

398.90

2

Adrian Peterson

MIN

RB

333.50

3

Ray Rice

BAL

RB

330.10

4

Maurice Jones-Drew

JAC

RB

325.50

5

Andre Johnson

HOU

WR

312.90

6

Randy Moss

NE

WR

287.40

7

Reggie Wayne

IND

WR

286.40

8

Wes Welker

NE

WR

285.40

9

Larry Fitzgerald

ARI

WR

284.20

10

Frank Gore

SF

RB

282.60

11

Miles Austin

DAL

WR

278.80

12

Brandon Marshall

DEN

WR

276.90

13

Steve Smith

NYG

WR

271.00

14

Roddy White

ATL

WR

266.50

15

Sidney Rice

MIN

WR

262.20

16

Ricky Williams

MIA

RB

253.50

17

DeSean Jackson

PHI

WR

253.40

18

Joseph Addai

IND

RB

249.40

19

Steven Jackson

STL

RB

247.80

20

Hines Ward

PIT

WR

247.40

21

Thomas Jones

NYJ

RB

240.00

22

Vincent Jackson

SD

WR

239.80

23

Ryan Grant

GB

RB

236.00

24

Santonio Holmes

PIT

WR

234.40

25

Chad Ochocinco

CIN

WR

233.90

Table 1 lists the top-25 highest-scoring fantasy running backs and wide receivers (PPR leagues) from 2009. According to the data, just 10 were running backs and 15 were wide receivers, and — get this — 10 of the top-15 scorers were wide receivers, which is proof that choosing running backs with your first two or three draft selections as dictated by the 2SRBDS clearly is no longer a guarantee for fantasy success.

Do not infer the wrong message here. Running backs are still a critical part of fantasy football and an important part of your fantasy teams, since most leagues require you to start two of them each week. A RB1 that ranges in value from above average to elite is still a critical part of any winning team. If the running backs that you have designated as acceptable first-round choices on your cheat sheets are not available when your first pick comes around, simply opt for the best-available wide receiver and select your RB1 in another round, depending on your strategy and player availability. By the way, if you have a stud receiver that you think will outscore all runners, go with your gut and draft that wide out. What about drafting a RB2? I will discuss that matter a little later.

MORE INTENSE QB LOVE

Determined to stock their rosters with the most productive and consistent fantasy players available to help offset the devaluation of the running back position, some owners also made the acquisition of elite quarterbacks a top priority. The stud passers were a highly sought after commodity this past season, flying off draft boards as early as the second round. If you compare the data in Table 2 with Table 1, you can see that elite quarterbacks actually rate among the top scorers in fantasy football in most scoring systems.

Stud quarterbacks were not always in high demand. Relying on the principles of the 2SRBDS and other more traditional drafting strategies years ago, most owners would purposely load up their rosters with running backs first and then wide receivers, electing to pass on even the highest-scoring quarterbacks until the latter rounds. Since most owners were required to start a minimum of two running backs and a minimum of two wide receivers but just one passer, procuring runners and receivers before a quarterback made sense. When the time came to acquire a passer, owners would do one of two things:

  • Draft a top quarterback in the fifth or sixth round at the earliest.
  • Wait until the eighth or ninth rounds (sometimes later) and select two middle- or lower-tier upside quarterbacks with the intent to play the one with the best matchup each week. This is obviously a “tag-team” approach.

However, thanks to the skyrocketing fantasy production from today’s elite passers and the desire of owners to obtain consistently productive players, the tag-team quarterback approach has become antiquated. As you can see in Table 2, the top-10 fantasy signal-callers from this past season were undeniably more productive than the passers ranked No. 11 through No. 20.

TABLE 2 – TOP 20 FANTASY QBs – 2009

RANK

PLAYER

TEAM

G

FP

FP/G

1

Aaron Rodgers

GB

16

402.10

25.13

2

Drew Brees

NO

15

370.70

24.71

3

Matt Schaub

HOU

16

360.60

22.54

4

Peyton Manning

IND

16

355.70

22.23

5

Tony Romo

DAL

16

344.65

21.54

6

Brett Favre

MIN

16

342.80

21.43

7

Tom Brady

NE

16

342.30

21.39

8

Ben Roethlisberger

PIT

15

340.40

22.69

9

Philip Rivers

SD

16

335.70

20.98

10

Eli Manning

NYG

16

315.55

19.72

11

Jay Cutler

CHI

16

314.50

19.66

12

Kurt Warner

ARI

15

296.90

19.79

13

Donovan McNabb

PHI

13

291.75

22.44

14

Jason Campbell

WAS

16

290.50

18.16

15

David Garrard

JAC

16

290.15

18.13

16

Kyle Orton

DEN

16

281.20

17.58

17

Joe Flacco

BAL

16

270.85

16.93

18

Carson Palmer

CIN

16

266.00

16.63

19

Matt Ryan

ATL

14

244.70

17.48

20

Matt Hasselbeck

SEA

14

231.35

16.53

Quarterbacks on winning teams were far more productive, consistent and prone to posting big fantasy games. Seven of the passers ranked in the top 10 were on playoff teams, while just four of the signal-callers ranked in the second tier led teams that made it to the post-season. If you had to chose, would you prefer a quarterback from the group ranked No. 1 through No. 10 or the group ranked No. 11 through No. 20?

GROWING TIGHT END LOVE

The prolific NFL passing attacks boosted not only the value of wide receivers but also the value of a handful of tight ends. Some fantasy owners mined the tight end position early in drafts as a source of consistent scoring. The elites — particularly Dallas Clark (Colts), Antonio Gates (Chargers) and Jason Witten (Cowboys) — went off many draft boards as early as the third round this past season.

TABLE 3 – TOP 20 FANTASY TEs – 2009

RANK

PLAYER

TEAM

FP (PPR)

1

Dallas Clark

IND

271.70

2

Vernon Davis

SF

252.50

3

Antonio Gates

SD

242.70

4

Brent Celek

PHI

221.10

5

Jason Witten

DAL

209.00

6

Tony Gonzalez

ATL

205.70

7

Kellen Winslow

TB

196.10

8

Heath Miller

PIT

190.90

9

Visanthe Shiancoe

MIN

178.60

10

Greg Olsen

CHI

169.20

11

Zach Miller

OAK

164.50

12

Jermichael Finley

GB

152.60

13

John Carlson

SEA

150.40

14

Todd Heap

BAL

148.50

15

Fred Davis

WAS

134.90

16

Kevin Boss

NYG

130.30

17

Jeremy Shockey

NO

122.90

18

Owen Daniels

HOU

121.90

19

Dustin Keller

NYJ

109.90

20

Benjamin Watson

NE

99.40

How valuable were the top tight ends in PPR leagues? Look at the data in Table 4. I have taken the fantasy running back and wide receiver statistics from Table 1 and added the tight ends accordingly.

TABLE 4 – TOP 2009 SCORERS – RB, WR & TE

RANK

PLAYER

TEAM

POS

FP (PPR)

1

Chris Johnson

TEN

RB

398.90

2

Adrian Peterson

MIN

RB

333.50

3

Ray Rice

BAL

RB

330.10

4

Maurice Jones-Drew

JAC

RB

325.50

5

Andre Johnson

HOU

WR

312.90

6

Randy Moss

NE

WR

287.40

7

Reggie Wayne

IND

WR

286.40

8

Wes Welker

NE

WR

285.40

9

Larry Fitzgerald

ARI

WR

284.20

10

Frank Gore

SF

RB

282.60

11

Miles Austin

DAL

WR

278.80

12

Brandon Marshall

DEN

WR

276.90

13

Dallas Clark

IND

TE

271.70

14

Steve Smith

NYG

WR

271.00

15

Roddy White

ATL

WR

266.50

16

Sidney Rice

MIN

WR

262.20

17

Ricky Williams

MIA

RB

253.50

18

DeSean Jackson

PHI

WR

253.40

19

Vernon Davis

SF

TE

252.50

20

Joseph Addai

IND

RB

249.40

21

Steven Jackson

STL

RB

247.80

22

Hines Ward

PIT

WR

247.40

23

Antonio Gates

SD

TE

242.70

24

Thomas Jones

NYJ

RB

240.00

25

Vincent Jackson

SD

WR

239.80

26

Ryan Grant

GB

RB

236.00

27

Santonio Holmes

PIT

WR

234.40

28

Chad Ochocinco

CIN

WR

233.90

29

Jamaal Charles

KAN

RB

231.70

30

Matt Forte

CHI

RB

223.00

31

Brent Celek

PHI

TE

221.10

Four of the top-31 fantasy scorers in PPR leagues (non-quarterbacks) were tight ends, and three tight ends cracked the top 25. Consider this:

  • Owen Daniels (Texans) was the top-scoring fantasy tight end in the league before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 8.
  • Chris Cooley (Redskins) also was enjoying a solid season before he was lost for the entire year with an ankle injury (Week 7).
  • Jermichael Finley (Packers) posted top-five stats during the second half of 2009.
  • John Carlson (Seahawks), who is capable of top-10 stats, had a disappointing season.
  • Dustin Keller (Jets) was inconsistent during the regular season, but we saw a boost in his numbers during the playoffs thanks to the improving play of Mark Sanchez.

It looks like the pool of stud tight ends could expand in 2010 with potential bounce-back seasons from Daniels, Cooley and Carlson. In addition, Keller and especially Finley look poised to join the ranks of the studs. I strongly suspect the top performers at tight end will be in high demand for their scoring prowess and consistency even more next season. It would not surprise me to see Clark, Davis, Gates and Witten all have an average draft position falling somewhere in the third round.

WHEN SHOULD YOU ACQUIRE A RB2?

Finally, here is what we learned in 2009 about when to draft a RB2: you can find decent ones in the seventh round or later. If you follow the SWRDS or any similar approach, you will first select, in some order, top starting receivers, a top quarterback, a top tight end and a RB1 that rates as at least solid in quality (safe to start most weeks). Using high draft picks to make the starting WRs, QB, TE and RB1 positions the nucleus of your team will come at the expense of owning a strong RB2, but that is okay. Why? The odds are against you finding a strong RB2 anyway due to RBBC. As I have discussed, the running back position has been watered down by RBBC, so why waste a high draft pick on a back in a time-share that offers usually lesser reliability and weaker fantasy scoring potential? At the same time, thanks to RBBC, you should be able to find many competent backs to use as your RB2s. Load your roster with three or four of them — consider selecting at least one rookie — and simply play the one with the best matchup each week.

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