Ideally, fantasy football would be a game that is completely fair and where everyone is equal. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. We try to make things as fair as we can, but there will inevitably be some inequities. One of those inequities is draft position. What is the best slot to draft from, and how does draft position impact fantasy football strategy?
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What Is the Best Position To Have for Your Fantasy Football Draft Strategy?
Most seasonal fantasy football leagues determine their draft order through random chance. Whether that is by picking names out of a hat, using an online randomizer, or just letting the draft platform do it, where each fantasy manager drafts is something we have no control over.
While not every draft position is created equal, every manager has the same 8.3% chance of landing each draft position.
Some leagues add a layer of complexity by not having the random draw determine the order itself but rather the order in which managers can select their draft slot.
So, if your name comes out of the proverbial hat last (because you gotta draw 12-1 to build suspense), instead of automatically having the first overall pick, you would have first dibs at whichever pick you want. In a scenario where you could choose your draft slot, which one is the best?
Draft Slot Value Over Replacement
Fantasy Points’ Scott Barrett recently did an analysis of expected value over replacement (VORP) by draft slot. He found that a top-three draft pick has a 114% edge on one that is in the bottom three.
In the past, I’ve had friends tell me they wanted a lower pick so they could get two of the guys they wanted. It’s even happened this year. I’ve had conversations where people said they wanted to pick in the middle rather than at the top (or bottom). In the past, I might have agreed in the right conditions. Over the years, though, I’ve learned that the earlier you pick, the better.
Should You Always Want the Highest Pick Possible?
On a macro level, the answer is probably “yes.” However, despite living in a gimmick where everything is all or nothing, I try to resist saying you should “always” do something. Fantasy football is a game filled with too much nuance and too many moving parts to say for certain that any one thing is objectively correct 100% of the time.
Securing the first pick certainly doesn’t mean you’re going to win. It doesn’t even mean you’ll have the best players or a good team at all. You still need to draft well, manage well, and, of course, have a little luck.
There are so many variables when it comes to fantasy football that it’s impossible to always make the best pick at every draft slot. You can and should make the best choice in each round relative to your rankings and ADP.
If you make the optimal selection at every pick (which is defined retroactively based on fantasy points scored), you will likely win. However, since the objectively correct pick at each draft spot won’t be known until the season is over, no one is going to get everything correct.
If you look back at any of your past leagues, there will undoubtedly have been a path to victory for you. Assuming everyone else stayed the same, but you somehow had knowledge of that season’s results in advance, no matter where you pick, there was a series of proper selections that would’ve led to you having the best team.
The problem lies in the fact that, in almost all cases, there is quite literally a 0% chance you would’ve taken the players necessary because you just couldn’t possibly have known. There are instances where the best pick might’ve been an undrafted player that no one had even thought of prior to midseason.
The point of all this is you can win from anywhere. Draft position is not the be-all, end-all. It doesn’t seal your fate. But it would also be unfair to say it doesn’t matter at all. Draft position still dictates what players are even potentially available for you to select.
Using the upcoming 2023 season as an example, if you pick toward the back end, there is a 0% chance you can draft Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, Christian McCaffrey, or Austin Ekeler. Not happening. Not ever. It doesn’t matter what your opinion is on these players because you will never get them.
You may look at that and think, “Wow. I really need to pick early, then.” But the front of the draft has the same problems, just with different players. Of course, you have the option to take anyone.
The thing is, the issue with player availability occurs no matter where you draft. If we operate under the assumption that you’re not taking Tyreek Hill or Stefon Diggs over Jefferson and Chase, if you pick top three, you have a 0% chance at drafting those players because they will never be there in the second round.
If you pick at the front, you will get one of those four players, if you want. But what if you genuinely want two of the guys in the 8-16 ADP range? Do you just take a guy well ahead of ADP because there’s no chance you can get him next round?
Based on rankings and ADP, the players that typically go at the 1-2 turn are pretty much off the table for you.
There’s certainly an argument to be made for “getting your guy.” The general rule of thumb on “reaching” is it’s not really a reach if you aren’t going to be able to get the guy at your next pick.
This is one of the main reasons I love auction drafting so much. No player gets erased from your draft board simply due to your draft slot. But that’s an article for a different day.
There Are Advantages to Picking in the Middle
Statistically, picking early gives you the best chance to win. Having a pick at either corner gives you better odds of getting both players you want when you have two guys you’re struggling to decide between at your pick. But what about the middle?
Macro data cannot account for your league and the knowledge you have of your league-mates. Picking at the corners has its benefits, but if given the choice between picking at the back end or in the middle, I would much rather the middle.
Teams that pick in the 5-8 range have an advantage that the teams on the corners do not — falling value.
When you pick on the corners, almost every other manager in your league gets a chance to pick before you. When you see a player tumbling past his ADP, if you’re like me, your first thought is, “Well, if he makes it to me, I’m taking him.”
Unfortunately, when you pick on the corners, a player falling past his ADP has to get by a much larger percentage of the league. The closer you pick to one or 12, the more teams that player has to get past in order to make it to you. If you see the value, it stands to reason at least one other manager does as well.
When you pick in the middle, it’s a little more or a little less than half the league each round. That’s far fewer managers a falling player must get past for you to be able to scoop up the value. If that falling value exists, you have the potential to capitalize in every round.
The main difference in picking in the middle compared to the corners is the need to adapt. When picking at the corners, you often have the opportunity to get two players you want, but then there is a lot of time between your picks. As a result, you really need to pinpoint who you want and just take them.
When there are players who typically go 12-18 spots after your current selection, you have to make a decision right then and there on those players. Yes, you would technically be taking them well ahead of ADP, but because of the gap between your picks, you are never getting them if you don’t do it now. That is easily the biggest challenge of picking on the corners.
In the middle, you don’t have this issue. You can let the draft room come to you. When that falling value presents itself, capitalize, even if it means shifting your draft strategy.
A common pitfall of an inexperienced fantasy manager is steadfastly sticking to a particular strategy, often predetermined. In fact, one of the more common questions I am asked in the PFN Discord is about specific positional draft strategy.
This is not meant to criticize but rather to educate. You can’t really go into a draft saying you’re going to take X position in Round 1, Y position in Round 2, and Z position in Round 3. Drafts have too many variables.
Just because you need an RB2 doesn’t mean you take the best available running back if there’s a much higher-ranked WR available who realistically should’ve gone already. Draft for value before need … to an extent.
Therein lies the problem of managers picking at the corners. Let’s say you’re headed into the back half of Round 5, and you really need an RB2. But there are two tumbling WRs that you know are objectively good value picks based on ADP. More importantly, they’re picks you want to make.
If you know you need that RB2, and you pick in the middle, you can say to yourself, “I can wait one more round.” To be fair, that may end up not being the case. You can and will get it wrong. But waiting one more round likely won’t result in a run that removes every conceivable player you want to draft.
If a manager picking on the corners does that, that team could be looking at 20+ players off the board before they pick next. It’s much more difficult to do. And much more likely, every player you could conceivably want is gone by your next pick.
Waiting that extra round can backfire from any position. It’s just much more likely to do so when there are more players being selected between your picks.
With so many players drafted between each of their two sets of picks, teams at the corners have to assume that if they pass on a player, he’s not making it back to them. This often forces managers to draft players earlier than their ADPs. In the middle, it’s conceivable that every pick you make is a value.
Is There a Particular Position You Have To Take Based on Draft Slot?
We are experiencing another seismic shift in draft philosophy this season. It is something we haven’t seen since 2016 — the rise of the early-round wide receiver.
The most valuable asset in fantasy football remains the elite running back. I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon. But last season, running backs failed so spectacularly relative to wide receivers that fantasy managers are now sometimes drafting as many as nine WRs (plus Travis Kelce) in the first round.
Everyone knows securing an elite running back is extremely beneficial. It just doesn’t automatically mean you have to take the best available running back with your first-round pick. There’s more to it than that.
Fantasy football is a game predicated on predicting the outcome of another game. There’s no objectively superior approach to drafting your fantasy team.
Now, that doesn’t mean just drafting on a whim with no real plan. You absolutely should have a clear strategy and plan in mind when entering your draft. Just don’t expect everything to go exactly as planned.
The best way I can explain this is by directing you all to Leonard Snart’s Four Rules of Planning. Watch the video. It’s only eight seconds long. If you’ve never seen “The Flash,” you’ll probably get a good chuckle. I digress.
You want to make the best possible selection at every pick. Some years, that may involve taking running backs early and often. In other years, it may involve going wide receiver-heavy. There will even be situations where an early-round tight end appears to be the optimal move.
Whatever you decide to do, know that it’s possible to win with that draft strategy — unless that strategy is taking kickers and defenses in the first two rounds. Don’t do that.
If Given the Choice, What Draft Position Should I Select?
Now is the part where we get to 2023 fantasy football drafts specifically. And nothing has changed. I am always taking No. 1. I always want to pick as early as possible, but the reason may not be why you think.
If we’re talking specifically about the first round, I actually don’t want to draft No. 1. I view Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Bijan Robinson, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tyreek Hill as a clear top six that’s better than the rest of the first round. I’m okay with any of them. So, wouldn’t that make the optimal draft slot No. 6?
The reason I want to pick No. 1 has nothing to do with the first round. It’s the third round.
Each year, there are typically a handful of Round 3 players that are clearly better than the rest of the available players. There’s a cliff, if you will. When you pick early, you have a better shot at securing one of those players. In fact, based on my preferences, there are 24 players I value before there’s a drop-off. And that does not include quarterbacks.
If I pick in the middle, there’s almost no chance any of those guys fall to me. But if I pick in the top three, there’s a good chance I can get three of them, as all it would take is one or two managers taking a QB or another player I don’t have valued in that top 24 before my third-round pick.
That’s where I find the biggest edge to be in the early rounds of fantasy football drafts. It’s one of the main reasons the third-round reversal draft structure was even invented.
If you include the QBs, I count 27 players in 2023 fantasy football drafts that I value at a level substantially above the rest. That means only the teams picking in the top three get to draft three of them. That’s where I want to be.
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