The Fantasy Football History Project
A Look into the 2013 NFL Fantasy Season
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana.
If you managed to stumble your way onto this newsletter, launched today to complement my main newsletter on books that I read, you likely know that the start of the NFL season is today. And it starts off with a bang with the anointed Super Bowl favorites, the Buffalo Bills, playing the team that is assumed to have a Super Bowl hangover, the LA Rams, at SoFi Stadium. You probably saw the AC/DC Thunderstruck commercials.
In anticipation of the beginning of the season, I thought I would begin a project that I have been curious about every time I go to a fantasy football draft. In spite of fantasy sports long being the purview of the football nerds, those who have fun analyzing spreadsheets to assess positional advantages, I have always wondered why do analysts exclusively focus their draft analysis on projections, devoting none of it to the study of the past. The principle of the exercise I will outline below is that when you are drafting a player, it helps to think of that player as fitting a certain mold—superstar rookie or aging but undervalued veteran—rather than get infatuated or discouraged with the specific attributes of that individual player. A benefit of thinking in this way is it allows you to expand the dataset of player observations. I will definitely be observing this Spongebob meme.
For the analysis, I decided to focus on the very first year I started playing fantasy football, the 2013 NFL season, a year that is interesting to analyze because it had an unusually high number of breakouts, players who would go on to be studs for next several years (and in one case, Keenan Allen, still is), as well as statistical anomalies like Peyton Manning’s 55 TD season. That anomaly still leads people astray, leading people in home leagues everywhere to take the best QB on the board in the first round, chasing the El Dorado that is unlikely to appear again.
I sorted the 2013 NFL season data according to value-based drafting (VBD) by points per reception (PPR) scoring, the fantasy football equivalent of value over replacement (VOR). Replacement is set at zero according to position; for RBs the 30th ranked player, WR’s the the 36th, and QB’s and TE’s the 12th. That gives a list of players sorted by VBD, cutting the list off at player 89 when the value over replacement turns negative. The fantasy football MVP that year was Jamaal Charles, coming off a down season for him in 2012, but the positive TD regression and increasing passage usage was largely anticipated with a ADP of 2, behind only Adrian Peterson, a “bust” finishing directly behind undrafted Fred Jackson in the overall ranks. The final name on my list, finishing just above positive territory, is the season that put Nick Foles on the map in Chip Kelly’s offense with the legendary 27 TD/2 INT season.
All three of these examples are case studies of the types of seasons I want to track. Jamaal Charles is an anticipated breakout. For my purposes, I call somebody an anticipated breakout if their average draft position (ADP) is four rounds higher in a 12 team league (48 spots) than their 2012 finish.1 Fantasy football being what it is, they are far outnumbered by unanticipated breakouts, players who saw an improvement from their previous year overall finish by at least four rounds, but without the bump in price it costs to acquire them on draft day. Unanticipated breakouts are also known as “sleepers”. Sleepers are usually unknown players with a favorable opportunity like Nick Foles in the Chip Kelly offense, a failed experiment that nonetheless sparked an offensive revolution in the pros. The final case is the bust. I defined a player as a bust if you spent a top 24 pick on a player that ended up finishing outside the top 4 rounds (below 48). There were nine such players in the 2013 draft, all with slightly different reasons. (Note neither Jamaal Charles nor AP fit these criteria of “breakout” and “bust” as their changes in performance relative to ADP were not significant enough to meet my arbitrary pick thresholds).
Here is the table for breakouts; you’ll notice a pattern. The fantasy community is much better at predicting breakouts for WR’s and TE’s than RB’s because it is easier to track metrics like vacated targets and/or changes to offensive coordinators. The only limitation with their projections is often they are not rosy enough. Having Kyle Shanahan as your coordinator can turn even Pierre Garcon to a bonafide WR1. Similar changes often happen when a receiver switches teams, receiving a significant QB upgrade. Yes, I’m looking at you Allen Robinson….
Any “170” in the table simply means that the player either finished outside the top 170 for the year in question or were drafted outside the top 170 for ADP data. Everybody saw Jimmy Graham coming from a mile away (see the byline in the above SI cover). The point above about RB’s still applies but there is a minor exception for highly drafted rookie RB’s slated for significant opportunity. Both Eddie Lacy and Giovani Bernard fit that mold. Lastly, the bottom of this table is perhaps better characterized as “value” rather than “breakout”. For instance, Emmanuel Sanders’ breakout wouldn’t come until he joined up with Peyton Manning the following season, but values are still interesting to track because they often foreshadow the breakout. It’s the reason why Bills receiver, Gabe Davis, is interesting this year.
The first thing to point out about the sleepers is how much longer this list is and with truly top-end talent, led by Knowshown Moreno, but also including Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson, Julian Edelman, Leveon Bell, Julius Thomas, and Keenan Allen.
The sleepers list can also be subdivided into two groups; the players that really came out of nowhere—deep sleepers and players who have production in the NFL, but drafters fail to notice they are on the cusp of a leap. Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, and Jordy Nelson all finished as WR3’s in 2012, but fantasy community failed to account for the fact that they would make the leap into fantasy superstardom. Or, in Josh Gordon’s case, one of the greatest one-hit wonder fantasy seasons of all-time. And in 14 games! Like Peyton’s season, this is the kind of efflorescence that continues to lead people astray. The Ringer fantasy football crew compared the miraculous Josh Gordon 2013 season to crypto on a recent podcast. That is, the type of return that is so phenomenal that players are continually searching for that high, not recognizing there is only one Bitcoin and only one Josh Gordon. In the value section, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Andy Dalton all fit the bill for only willing to pay for last year’s stats when you should be willing to pay more category. Andy Dalton, top 10 fantasy QB! The answer to this year’s 2013 Andy Dalton has a very easy answer by the way, someone who stands to profit off a more favorable offensive scheme—Kirk Cousins.
The risk averse out there are most interested in this category. Most want to start off a draft with two players that will make their start sit decisions easier week-to-week. Relatedly, NBC’s new fantasy guru, Matthew Berry, always says you can’t win your draft in the first round, but you can lose it. Here is the list:
For the same reasons RB’s are less predictable than WR’s on the upside, they are also less predictable on the downside. This list is dominated by aging RB’s, and one RB who got placed in a pass first offense, Alfred Morris. Julio Jones coming off his breakout season also makes the cut, as he only played in five games. 2013 is an interesting year to analyze because the stage was set for a new crop of RB’s +Adrian Peterson (there are always a few RB’s who are built different, but we don’t have the advantage of knowing who’s durable in advance). I think we might have another year like this. Javonte Williams is among the most promising to supplant a few of the RB’s currently being drafted in the first round.
Lessons are Flexible Principles, not Rigid Rules
In fantasy football history as well as academic history, people are looking for hard and fast rules—if I follow this formula, I’m guaranteed to bring home the trophy—but all that is on offer is principles. I think if anything can be gleaned from this analysis in 2022, it is three flexible principles which correspond to each section, breakouts, sleepers, and busts:
Don’t be afraid to pay up for a player with limited production if that player is a talented pass catcher with an opportunity due to vacated targets. The axiom of fantasy football is that production comes from talent plus opportunity. Two players I like this year who should follow this formula are Baltimore second year standout, Rashod Bateman, and third-year breakout candidate, Gabe Davis. Relatedly, don’t be afraid to spend a relatively early pick on a rookie RB IFF that RB has a solid draft pedigree or is in an awesome situation. I have some questions on both counts for this year’s candidate, Breece Hall.
You will miss out on most sleepers. Some of the sleepers will be drafted and turn/return to superstars. But if history is indicative, most players who will be fantasy viable will go entirely undrafted, especially in 10-team leagues, as they will emerge from left field. Everybody’s favorite sleepers of the preseason will be set aside, because the players that emerge are by definition unanticipated. An example is somebody like Terrance Marshall, who could very well have an unheralded breakout like DJ Chark did a couple years ago on Jacksonville. I wouldn’t advise that you draft these players, but be forewarned a few players in the 60-80 range of the positional rankings will pop in the first four weeks. Add them to your watchlist now.
The advice for busts would appear as clear cut as it gets—take WR’s over RB’s if you are risk averse. Yet that is a recipe to never win in fantasy football, as it is more often the case the true difference makers—players with CMC, Derick Henry, LaDainian Tomlinson, or Jamaal Charles levels of usage—are almost always RB’s with an occasional historic WR season thrown in, such as Cooper Kupp last season. So my advice is, in keeping with this exercise, more flexible, if you are to draft a RB, gravitate towards the younger and/or more durable backs. It might feel strange to go against the grain and draft someone in a worse offense, but go after somebody like Najee Harris, who I believe is slated to be a durable back for several years like Zeke or AP, over someone like Dalvin Cook, who has a history of knee injuries. But everybody has different risk preferences. The aim is to minimize risk in such a way that still maximizes week-to-week upside.
And with that I wish everyone a successful 2022 NFL fantasy season!