The Anatomy of Fantasy Football Rankings
August 29, 2012 | gregsauce
First of all, my sincere apologies to those of you who mistakenly found yourself here due to the words “anatomy” and “fantasy” in the title. Because this is a family website (and because roughly 50% of NFL players are never-nudes), I can’t deliver the uncompromising visual dissertation on NFL-player body parts that you desire. I wish you no ill will if you click away to continue your quest, but if you have some time to kill, why not stay a while and read about my fantasy football rankings? The MRIs of Adrian Peterson’s knee ligaments and Hollywood headshots of Rob Gronkowski’s chiseled jaw will still be there when you’re done here. Fantasy rankings, on the other hand, are fleeting and that’s what I want to talk about first.
The first thing I want any set of rankings to be is up-to-date. To be fair, what I really want my rankings to be is accurate, but they can’t be accurate if they’re not up-to-date, so leave it to my friend the transitive property to come to the rescue and allow me to stand by my original statement. Where was I?… Up-to-date rankings! In the fake football world, old information is bad information. Would you dare draft Maurice Jones-Drew in the first round right now? Absolutely not, but you might have done so if you drafted a couple months ago when MoJo’s holdout was only a minor concern. Football is an unpredictable game and the best rankings remain fluid through the draft season, adjusting for every preseason performance and injury note.
The trickiest part of compiling fantasy rankings is throwing all the positions into the overall rankings mush pot. Positional rankings are far more useful in general because as the draft progresses, team need will eventually trump any value manifested in the overall rankings. Still, a quality set of overall rankings is very useful in the early rounds and there are things we rankers can do to maximize their value.
To start, we can utilize Value Based Drafting (VBD) to zero in on which non-running backs are viable early-round picks. Some rankers piece VBD values together in their head and others geek out with formulas and spreadsheets. At the end of the day, we’re all simply trying to figure out when it’s correct to stray from the status quo of starting the draft by selecting two running backs.
In addition to VBD, we can examine the depth of each position on the whole to evaluate which positions are worth targeting early. For example, the depth at wide receiver this season has been well documented and like my colleague Denny Carter, I will not own Calvin Johnson this season. Simply put, I would much rather invest a first-round pick in an elite running back or quarterback and put my wide receiving corps together in rounds 3-9. This is reflected in my rankings with Megatron ranked #10 overall, but the chances of him slipping that far in drafts are slim.
Ultimately, the overall rankings exist as a general plan for how to draft a winning fantasy team. My rankings and my plan for this season are based on the following tenets:
1. Running backs start to get scary in the second round.
Blame this on the running-back-by-committee epidemic that has swept through the NFL over the past few years. With so many backs splitting carries, the rushers with “featured” roles are more valuable than ever. Hence, Chris Johnson and Darren McFadden are my #4 and #5 players overall, despite their respective effort and durability concerns. Meanwhile, running backs with immense talent upside like Jamaal Charles and Doug Martin are high in my rankings because I expect them to make the most of their opportunities, whether they are splitting touches with a teammate or not.
2. In addition to wide receiver being deep overall, the tiers are relatively large.
This means that there are a lot of great values to be had at WR in the mid-to-late rounds and also that there is a lot of redundancy at WR in those spots. If you want to draft a wideout in the third round, but you miss out of Hakeem Nicks and Greg Jennings, one of A.J. Green, Percy Harvin, Brandon Marshall, and Steve Smith (CAR) will probably still be available and provide similar value. Furthermore, there’s a decent chance that one or two of them will slip to the fourth round. I’ll stop harping on this point eventually, but you can and should wait on wide receiver this season.
3. Tight end is deep, but there is a steep drop-off after the top-4 or top-5 (depending on how you feel about Vernon Davis).
The TE position is basically a “choose your own adventure” in 2012. You can invest an early pick in Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, Aaron Hernandez, or maybe Vernon Davis. If you do, it’s important to regard your selection as more of a general pass-catcher than a tight end, meaning you should prioritize drafting wide receivers even less and focus on grabbing running backs and a quarterback with your other early picks. If you miss out or avoid the top-5 tight ends, your plan can be summed up with one word: wait. You wait for one of the mid-tier TEs to slip a round or two past their ADP and pounce on the value, or you wait to be one of the final teams to select a starting TE and use all your early picks on RB, WR, and QB.
4. Quarterback is also deep, but drafting one in the first two rounds is viable because of the depth at WR and the risk attached to every RB after the top-6.
I don’t advocate taking Aaron Rodgers ahead of Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, or Darren McFadden and I wouldn’t take Brady or Brees ahead of Matt Forte. Otherwise, I have no problem taking a QB in the first or second round. There is one minor caveat to this strategy, though: If you take a quarterback in Round 1, taking a running back in Round 2 is virtually a requirement. Unless you want your RB1 to be Ahmad Bradshaw or Fred Jackson, you can’t afford to pair your first-round QB with a WR or TE in the second round. Note that this strategy works the other way, too. If you draft Graham or Gronk with one of your first two picks, you can’t afford to take a QB with your other top pick without digging yourself a serious hole at running back.
5. Missing out on a top-5 QB isn’t the end of the world.
As NFL offenses continue to skew towards the passing game, the gap between the upper- and lower-tier quarterbacks will continue to shrink. This allows us as fantasy managers to wait on QBs just like we wait on TEs. Either you wait for a clear value on a QB in the Vick-to-Cutler range, or you wait even longer and assemble a quarterback committee from the likes of Palmer, Schaub, RGIII, Freeman, Fitzpatrick, Luck, Flacco, Wilson, Dalton, and Locker. Employing a QBBC strategy will allow you to stock up on running backs, wide receivers, and maybe an upper-echelon tight end early in the draft.
6. Defenses and kickers are irrelevant.
Last, but not least, we need to talk about the last positions you should ever fill in a fantasy draft. The plan behind my rankings hinges on the fact that you will only draft running backs, wide receivers, quarterbacks, and tight ends until the final two rounds. Then and only then is it justifiable to draft a defense or kicker. Furthermore, when drafting a defense or kicker, do so with the knowledge that you will happily drop either for one with a better matchup in any given week during the season. When I draft a fantasy defense, I care much more about their matchups in the first three or four weeks than their ranking or ADP. This is why most of my teams this season have ended up with the Bengals defense and their opening schedule of @BAL, vs. CLE, @WAS, @JAC, vs. MIA, and @CLE. Baltimore is the scariest of those offenses and defensive matchups don’t get much better than four games against Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Miami in the five weeks after that.
In conclusion, the general plan with these rankings is to prioritize running backs early and remain flexible otherwise. Hopefully you can lock up your starting RB spots early so you can take advantage of the value at the other positions after Round 3. After the first five or six rounds, you can shift your focus from overall rankings to team need and look for values in the positional rankings. As always, be mindful of drafting tiers and what positions your opponents have left to fill, as those factors will inflate or suppress the value of certain positions at different points in the draft. Without further ado, check out my personal rankings below. I will be updating them often leading up to opening night.