Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. He writes for the New York Times, NBC, and Dallas Morning News.
I’m going into 2013 drafts with an early-running back mindset. You’ve heard it all year: running back is a scarce position and you need to grab them early. It’s certainly true, and if the value is there, it’s probably in your best interest to jump on those runners.
But we need to remember something about value: it’s dependent on public perception.
The entire concept of value in fantasy football—or any marketplace—is built on the assumption that you’re exploiting some sort of inefficiency. I discussed the notion of fantasy football as a marketplace in my book Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft:
Fantasy Football as a Stock Market
A fantasy football draft is really no different than the stock market. Both stock traders and fantasy owners seek to leverage knowledge into value acquisition, and that value is the result of cost minimization. And just as game theory is a useful tool in the fantasy owner’s arsenal, a fundamental understanding of public perception is vital to traders.
Stocks are not inherently good or bad. Rather, those designations come in relation to the price of the stock. The value of Microsoft stock, for example, has no meaning without knowledge of the share price.
Microsoft is currently selling at around $32 per share. Buying at $20 is probably a smart move; buying at $50 likely is not so wise. Likewise, players are not valuable to fantasy owners outside of a proper understanding of their opportunity cost.
Buy Low, Sell High
The goal of investors is to sell stocks at their peak and buy them at their lowest point. When a stock is at its highest price, that number is likely not representative of the stock’s true worth. In most cases, stocks tend to fall after they reach an all-time high due to regression toward the mean.
Similarly, fantasy owners are in the business of “buying” players whose perceived value is lower than their actual value, and “selling” players whose perceived value exceeds their actual value. I talked about this a bit before when describing how it’s useful to recognize which of a player’s stats are due to random events, and thus likely to regress.
This “buy low, sell high” mentality is fundamental to stock trading and fantasy drafting.
Understanding Public Perception
At the heart of the value determination process for both traders and fantasy owners is a keen knowledge of public perception. Traders seek to predict which stocks will become popular among the public prior to that stock’s share price rising.
Similarly, fantasy owners must recognize which players have too low of a price tag (or Average Draft Position). Both share price and ADP are set by the public.
Running backs might hold value this season, but that’s not inherently the case, i.e. it’s not true “no matter what.” There’s a certain threshold that, if crossed, would result in players at other positions possessing so much value that it surpasses the opportunity cost of bypassing early running backs.
I think we’re dangerously close to that threshold. If everyone is using the same strategy to gain a competitive edge, then no one has an advantage.
Putting It Into Practice
I recently completed a high-stakes draft in which I (unfortunately) landed the 10th pick in a 12-team league. I really don’t like that spot this year because, if you miss out on the elite and second-tier running backs, as I did, you’re in a bit of a pickle. Before I get into my strategy, take a look at how I played it.
Note that this league starts 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 2 FLEX, 1 K, 1 D. It’s 1.5 PPR for tight ends and traditional full-point PPR otherwise.
Right out of the gate, you’re probably asking why in the hell I would bypass C.J. Spiller (or LeSean McCoy) in the first round. In this particular league, the playoffs begin in Week 11—the same week that both Buffalo and Philadelphia have their byes.
I downgraded both running backs quite a bit because, although you obviously need to get to the playoffs to compete in them, your probability of winning the league is considerably lower if you’re missing your top player.
To be clear, I would have drafted Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Arian Foster, Jimmy Graham (because of the 1.5 PPR), Jamaal Charles, Calvin Johnson, and Trent Richardson before Brandon Marshall in the first, so this was a bit of a nightmare scenario for me.
With McCoy and Spiller not serious considerations, I was forced to decide between Brandon Marshall, Dez Bryant, and a bunch running backs I have rated as third-tier options: Matt Forte, Steven Jackson, Chris Johnson, DeMarco Murray, Marshawn Lynch, and so on. If you have those guys rated higher than me, that’s fine; the point is that it was a decision between near-elite receivers (in a PPR league with two flex spots) and only mildly interesting running backs.
The Slingshot Effect
When I drafted both Marshall and Bryant in the first two rounds, I knew I was taking a big-time gamble because I was going to be forced into drafting running backs in the third and fourth rounds. However, one of the oft-overlooked aspects of owners artificially inflating the value of a particular position is that it actually creates more value at that position later.
This year, RB-RB is very much back in style; five owners did it in this draft and only one other owner bypassed a running back in each of the initial two rounds. That means there’s not much meat left on the bone in the back portion of that area.
But it also means running back-heavy owners need to compensate in later rounds; the cost of drafting a third straight running back is hefty, so they’ll almost always look elsewhere. Many times, they overcompensate such that mid-level running backs fall too far.
You can think of the effect like a slingshot. When the slingshot is at rest, there’s no value at any spot; owners are drafting perfectly, and there are no inefficiencies to exploit. When there’s an unwarranted run on a position, it’s equivalent to shooting the slingshot. When it’s farthest from its rest point, owners have reached the peak of value inflation, i.e. they’ve selected too many players at a particular position.
You can perhaps acquire value by using a contrarian approach, as I did.
Once the slingshot recoils, however, it passes its initial rest point and continues moving backwards. That represents the ability to acquire value at the position whose value was initially artificially inflated. That’s what (I think) I did in drafting Lamar Miller and Darren McFadden.
They aren’t studs, but they have No. 1 RB potential that minimizes the opportunity cost of going WR-WR early. Simply put, I can certainly live with Miller and McFadden given that I have the top wide receiver duo in the league.
Replacing Early Production
We often think of what we gain with the selection of each pick, but the focus should really be on what we lose. Jimmy Graham is a scarce resource and highly likely to produce elite numbers in 2013, but the opportunity cost of drafting a tight end in the second round, this year more than ever, is magnificent.
Likewise, there’s a certain cost that comes with forgoing running backs in the early rounds. The degree of that cost really depends on your confidence to hit on mid-round backs.
Are you okay with a Miller/McFadden duo to accompany your elite wide receivers? What if you miss out on those guys? Would you be satisfied with David Wilson and Le’Veon Bell?
Just like the value of running backs as a whole, the worth of a WR-WR start to your draft is a fluid situation. It depends on a variety of factors, some of which are out of your control. Further, you shouldn’t go against the grain simply for the sake of it; if a top-tier running back falls into your lap, by all means, please, draft him.
But you need to be flexible on draft day, remembering fantasy football winners are often contrarians. There’s nothing more contrarian in 2013 than waiting on running backs.