By Gino Cerulli
follow me on twitter @Orca_DFW
All analysis is based on the following scoring:
4 points per TD pass
-2 points for each interception thrown
6 points per TD rushing and receiving
.04 points for each yard passing
.1 points for each yard rushing and receiving
1 point per reception
In part one of this series I examined the changes in running back usage over the last ten years. The tendency that teams are moving away from the every down back was statistically verified. The data showed that there was a distinct shift in philosophy after the 2006 season. Did this shift end the running backs’ reign as the dominant staple required to win fantasy titles? In this part, we’ll take a look.
When comparing fantasy performance between multiple positions, simply looking at total points scored is not a reliable way to determine value. Scoring systems vary and some leagues may favor quarterbacks by, for example, awarding 6 points for a touchdown pass rather than 4 points. This will litter the top of the overall points scored page with quarterbacks, but does it make them more valuable? The answer is no.
When comparing multiple positions, the best way to proceed is by using a Value Based Drafting (VBD) system. VBD is a system that allows you to place a numeric value on a player’s season that allows you compare them across positions. There are a number of ways to arrive at this number, with various degrees of complexity. All the methods I’ve come across use the total scoring of starting caliber players to calculate the VBD. In a 12 team league with the following starting requirements, 1 QB, 2 RB, 2WR, 1 TE, that would mean you’d be looking at the top 12 QBs, 24 RBs, 24 WRs and 12 TEs.
There are several methods to accomplish this. One I’ve seen compares players total points to the average total points of starters at their position. The one I’ll demonstrate first, one of the more popular and simpler methods, is calculated by taking the players total fantasy points scored and subtracting the total points scored by the lowest ranked starting player at the position. For example, in a 12 team league that starts one quarterback, here is the list of the starters, ranked from highest scoring to lowest scoring in 2011.
In order to calculate the VBD we will subtract the total points of the worst starting QB (Ben Roethlisberger) from the remaining 11 starters. Here are the results:
Over the course of the season, if you drafted Aaron Rodgers, you’ll have had an advantage of 171.34 pts over the team that drafted and started Ben Roethlisberger. Ultimately, understanding this is what wins fantasy championships. It’s more about scoring more than your opponent than it is about just scoring more. The larger the VBD, the larger your advantage is, week to week. This exact same number can be calculated for all other positions. The only difference, with this method, is that, when calculating running backs or wide receivers (assuming your league starts 2 of each), you’d be comparing the top 23 starters to the 24th starter’s total points. It would look like this:
Originally, this was the method I intended on using when I did this article. The more I thought about it, the more inadequate it seemed. Quarterback valuations are compared to the worst starter, the 12th ranked, while Running backs (both RB1 and RB2) are compared to the 24th ranked player. So basically, RB1s are being compared to the worst RB2 to determine their VBD, while the QBs are compared only against themselves. Each starting position in your league has equal value in determining your overall success. Each position requires a draft pick to fill. That’s why I decided to break out the positions individually and calculate the VBD for each the following starting positions:
This seems like the most equitable way to do this historical analysis. So, for the purpose of this article, the VBD will be calculated for each of these positions just like the quarterback position described above. RB1’s will be compared to the worst RB1, RB2’s to the worst RB2 and so on.
That’s more than enough set up, it’s time to dig into the data. When I started this project, I anticipated finding a decrease in running back production, but I still expected them to show up on the top of the food chain, with an increase in value with quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends due to the shift towards a pass first league. The results did not exactly match my expectation.
First, I want to look at trends over the ten years by position, then I’ll compare them to each other. Here’s the quarterback ten year chart. The VBA ranking is where they ranked overall, for all positions. These will help us spot trands in each position. Later we’ll put the results side by side and compare positions. Numbers in red are higher than the average for the position.
The trends couldn’t be more obvious in this chart. The quarterbacks emerged in 2006, took a slight step back in 2007 and then exploded from 2008 through 2011. There’s nothing in this chart that leads me to believe this trend will slow down any time soon. In the early 2000’s a first round pick on a quarterback was a sucker pick. Now, that’s no longer the case. Add in the length of their careers and the relative stability of the position and this chart should grab your attention.
I’ll go right down the position list and take a look at the RB1 position. Here’s the ten year report.
The RB1 position also shows a clear trend. It’s almost a mirror image of the quarterback position. After 2006 the running back position changed drastically. They went from dominating the top ten VBD positions to a modest representation at best. Once again, there’s no indication that this trend is temporary. Taking into consideration the short careers of running backs and the unpredictability of the position, I’m hard pressed to feel comfortable building my dynasty around a running back.
Now, I’ll look at the RB2 position. It may be difficult to grasp how an RB2 can compete, value wise, with an RB1. Remember, however, that the RB1’s are being comparing to the 12th best running back and the RB2’s are being compared to the 24th best running back. If the top 12 backs in the league have a relatively small margin of scoring between them, while the drop-off in production between the 13th to the 24th best running backs (RB2’s) is drastic, their VBA will be higher. Keep that in mind while reviewing the data.
The production of the RB2 is an inverted bell curve, strong in the early 2000’s, weak in the mid 2000’s and increasing again over the last 2 years. In the early 2000’s, when running backs generally carried the bulk of a team’s carries, there were at least 24 running backs that would get a pile of touches. This is likely the reason for the higher RB2 value. I believe the recent increase value is for a much different reason. As these lower ranked running backs get fewer and fewer touches, their point total starts dropping drastically. With the scoring total of the 24th running back reducing with decreased touches, the value of the higher end RB2’s is starting to once again increase. It’s uncertain if this trend can continue. If running back touches and production continue to decrease, eventually it will even out the scoring between the top and bottom RB2’s and you’ll see the VBD at this position again decline.
I’m going to post the WR1 and WR2 charts consecutively because I think they can be discussed together.
With the league shifting emphasis to passing, I anticipated seeing a steady increase in wide receiver production in both WR1 and WR2. That is not the case. The wide receiver has been one of the steadier positions over the last ten years. Their representation has changed very little. There are a few spikes and valleys, but nothing that extends to the point of trend. I’ll discuss them more when I look at the positional side by side comparison.
The final position to look at is the Tight ends.
There’s a lot of red in the middle of this chart, but the differential between the red and white numbers is not that great. Tight ends have remained fairly steady. I was surprised that the last two seasons showed lower than average VBD. Even though there were two tight ends that broke positional receiving records in 2011, there were still only two tight ends to crack the top 20 VBD.
Now that I’ve shown the VBD from a positional perspective, it’s time to put all the positions together in a side by side comparison to see what percentage of top VBD values each position represents. Here’s the full ten-year chart.
Looking at the ten-year total, running backs take the highest percentage at every interval. That’s pretty impressive for a position supposedly on the decline. Quarterbacks snagged the second highest percentage of top 5 players and tied with wide receivers for 2nd highest percentage of top 40 players. The tight end position had the 2nd highest percentage in the top 10, top 20 and top 30 slots. When comparing the RB2 with the WR2, the running backs have approximately double the representation at each slot. You’ll notice the flex position is represented on these charts. I included them for viewing purposes, but they’re a separate issue that will hopefully be addressed in more detail in future articles.
This is an interesting chart and worth perusing, but it’s not the climax of the story. The only way to truly get a handle on how much things have changed and where the trend is heading, is to look at two separate charts, 2002 – 2006 and 2007 – 2011. The results are dramatic. Here’s the first chart.
Notice the running back dominance. It’s remarkable. This was the era when drafting anything other than RB – RB in rounds one of and two of a dynasty startup or redraft league was unthinkable. The idea was, fantasy gods willing, to draft two RB1’s, which would give you a huge advantage on your competition. You’ll notice though, that the RB2 position surpasses the QBs in the Top 30 and Top 40 tier. Tight ends held the second highest percentage in all but the Top 40 slot, where they were edged out by Wide Receivers. This is a running back landscape.
Now I’ll show you 2007 to 2011.
This chart paints a totally different picture. Quarterbacks hold the top percentage spot in every single tier. Their top 5 representation increased 300%. Their top 10 representation saw a 267% increase. RB1 took the second highest spot in the Top 5 category and Top 30 category but they saw their top 5 numbers reduced by more than 100% and their top 10 representation drop by more than 230%. RB1 and WR1 tied for the 2nd highest top 20 and top 40 representations, while, tight ends had the 2nd highest top 10 presence over the five year span. When looking at the top 20, top 30 and top 40 tiers, the RB1s, WR1s and TE are almost split evenly, with never more than a 2% differential between them. The gap between RB2 and WR2 reduced from the previous five years, but the RB2 position still proved more valuable across all tiers.
Completion of this project has caused me to reevaluate my dynasty strategy. The growth of the quarterback value can’t be ignored. The sooner you embrace these drastic changes, the faster you can make adjustments to take advantage of them. A large percentage of dynasty owners will remain transfixed in the paradigm of running back dominance. Now is the time to take advantage of that line of thinking.
There are two other factors that were mentioned but should be expanded upon, since this is a dynasty article. They are, length of career and stability of position. If I were ranking the positions, in terms of length of career, I’d rank the quarterback as first, wide receivers and tight ends tied as second and running backs as a distant third. I doubt I’d get much argument with those assessments. As far as stability of position, I would rank the quarterbacks first again, wide receivers and tight ends second and running backs just behind them in 3rd. The gap between the wide receiver and tight end position versus the running back position is not nearly as large as it is for length of career. Teams invest insane amounts of money and resources into the quarterback position, thus, quarterbacks will be given every opportunity in the world to succeed. As running back by committee ideals are embraced, more players will get the ball in their hands. This gives more players the opportunity to flash talent and at least, steal more carries, and at most, supplant the incumbent starter outright. Wide receivers or tight ends who don’t perform are easily replaced as well, but generally, the 4th and 5th wide receivers or the 2nd tight ends are less likely to get as many targets or opportunities on Sundays as the backup running backs. All of these considerations only add to the quarterback value. It also bumps up wide receivers and tight ends slightly, just enough to, perhaps, give them the edge on running backs.
This is a lot to absorb, but it’s really only a portion of the story. First of all, VBD is generally used for drafting purposes, not analysis purposes. In order to fully embrace VBD and use it for your startup draft, you would have to do full stat projections of the upcoming season for every player, apply the formulas I’ve shown in this article and analyze the data. That can be a discussion for future articles. Additionally, understanding positional trends is all well and good, but ultimately, you have to pick the right players. You have to identify who will emerge, who will bust. This is not the be all and end all of fantasy success, but if you grasp and embrace this information, I’m confident that you’re likely to become a better fantasy owner. There is still, however, a lot of work to do before you can clear a spot on your mantle for your league’s trophy.