What is Value Based Drafting? (Fantasy Football)
Remember growing up when you used to fight for the biggest piece, the first turn, and the coveted spot riding shotgun in mom’s Ford Windstar? It’s time to rediscover that childhood competitiveness because that’s exactly what you need for draft season.
Fantasy football, in its essence, is not about getting a lot. It’s not about getting enough. It’s about getting more.
This is the concept at the heart of Value Based Drafting (VBD). In this article, I’m going to look at what VBD is and which players a VBD approach likes and dislikes for 2017, and then I’m going to shill for the FantasyPros Draft Wizard and its awesome VBD functionality.
What is Value Based Drafting?
If the goal were just to find the highest scoring players every year, you would draft a team full of quarterbacks—they were 23 of the top 30 in fantasy points last year. Obviously, no league is set up this way.
In most leagues, you can only start one quarterback, so the key question becomes how much better your quarterback is than your opponent’s. And how much better your two running backs are than your opponent’s running backs. And so on.
Enter VBD. The FantasyPros FAQ summarizes VBD quite nicely, but in short, the idea is that a player’s value isn’t based on how many total points he scores. Rather, it is based on how much more he scores than the “baseline” player at his position. VBD encapsulates a number of different ways to set that baseline, but for our purposes, there are three types of VBD:
- Value Over Replacement Player (VORP): How much better is David Johnson than the best running back available on waivers?
- Value Over Last Starter (VOLS): How much better is David Johnson than the last starting running back?
- Value Over Next Available (VONA): How much better is David Johnson than the best running back available at your next pick?
VBD isn’t perfect. It relies on generating accurate player projections and choosing the correct baseline, both Herculean tasks (if Hercules was an Excel nerd). And even the best projections can’t account for the unpredictability of an NFL season.
VBD also leaves out a lot of the nuance required to build a balanced team, and mostly ignores ADP in calculating “value.” VBD is a useful concept despite these flaws (which is why there are another 1,000 words coming). It serves as just one of many ways you should be preparing for your draft.
You generate VBD rankings by creating projections for every player, setting a baseline at each position, then calculating the difference between the two for each player. If it was your understanding there would be no math, you can streamline the process with the FantasyPros aggregate projections. This not only saves you from having to bust out the calculator but also mitigates some of the flaws of projections by combining multiple expert opinions.
For example, David Johnson is projected to score 289.8 fantasy points. A standard 12 team league has 180 players drafted, and our consensus ADP shows 58 running backs being drafted in the top 180. That makes the 59th running back, Thomas Rawls and his projected 67.1 fantasy points, the baseline for running backs using a VORP calculation. Johnson’s VORP—his projected points minus Rawls’ projected points—ends up a whopping 222.7. For comparison, Aaron Rodgers’ VORP is only 103.8, which explains why Johnson is the consensus #1 overall pick by ECR, while Rodgers is a mid-third rounder.
VBD vs. ECR
In general, VBD loves running backs. There’s a steep drop-off as you move down the position, and most leagues allow you to start two-to-third running backs, which creates a very low baseline and very high VBD score for the top backs. The same effect, though less pronounced, is seen with wide receivers.
On the other hand, VBD devalues quarterbacks and tight ends since you only start one of each in most leagues, and the drop-off from elite player to replacement level isn’t as drastic. To put a finer point on this, I used the above methodology to calculate VORPs for the top 180 players in our ECR rankings, then compared the VBD rankings to the ECR. Here were some of the notable differences (a positive score means VBD is higher on a player than ECR, e.g., Tyrod Taylor is ranked 88th in my VBD rankings, 118th in ECR):
- Running Backs
- Wide Receivers
- Risers: Mohamed Sanu (64), Tavon Austin (57), Kelvin Benjamin (26), Mike Wallace (20), Ted Ginn (18), Marvin Jones (18), Randall Cobb (14), Rishard Matthews (13)
- Fallers: Alshon Jeffery (-47), Keenan Allen (-41), Davante Adams (-39), Pierre Garcon (-35), Donte Moncrief (-33), Terrelle Pryor (-32), Brandin Cooks (-27)
- Tight Ends
Because it’s tied to projections, VBD is a good way to unearth the unsexy players being undervalued. No one wants guys like Matt Forte, Kelvin Benjamin, or Jason Witten—present company included—but they are lined up for significant touches.
VBD also loves pass-catching backs like Ty Montgomery and Theo Riddick, who get dinged in ECR because they won’t score many touchdowns or develop into league-winning workhorse backs. In the same way my wife more or less appreciates me because there are so many bad dudes out there, VBD respects these high-floor players at a position where replacement level is low. Players like these include Shane Vereen, Chris Thompson, Duke Johnson, Theo Riddick, Darren Sproles, and Charles Sims.
It was interesting to see VBD liked Matt Ryan. Everyone’s screaming regression—and he will regress—but Ryan has at least 4,100 yards and 26 touchdowns in six straight seasons. He can fall off quite a bit from 2016 and still be a solid QB1.
On the other end of the spectrum, VBD is much lower than ECR on wide receivers: 25 receivers ranked at least a full round lower in my VBD rankings compared to ECR. In general, I don’t agree with VBD here—as everyone zigs to running backs after last year, I’m zagging to receivers—but I do share VBD’s pessimism on guys like Jeffery, Allen, and Adams.
All of them have WR1 upside, but that can overshadow significant concerns based on past production, injury history, competition for targets, and overall depth at the position. Here, and in many other cases, VBD serves as a good reality check.
At tight end, mi amor Tyler Eifert is one of the biggest losers in VBD rankings. Once again, VBD serves as the hall monitor: despite Eifert’s TE1 upside, his injury profile and TD-reliance warrant temperance.
I also agree with VBD that Roethlisberger and Carr have more name value than fantasy value. They’ll produce, but you don’t gain much of an edge drafting them in the seventh/eighth round when guys like Andy Dalton and Tyrod Taylor offer similar production in the 11th/12th round. There’s not much to say on running backs fallers except — get Joe Mixon.
Using the Draft Wizard
So…this is a lot of work, but I’ve got good news for people who like good news: the FantasyPros Draft Wizard will do it all for you. If you select VBD on the Draft Wizard’s drop-down menu, it’ll bring up the VORP, VONA, and VOLS for every player, adjusting these numbers at each pick depending on how your draft is unfolding.
VONA, in particular, is nearly impossible to calculate on the fly, so this is a great tool to help you guess who will be around for your next selection. The Draft Wizard then compiles these three numbers into a composite VBD Score.
To illustrate what a VBD draft would look like, I did a mock on the Draft Wizard selecting the highest ranked player by VBD Score. I then reverted all the picks and ran through it again taking the highest ranked player by ECR. Here are the results (VBD team is on the left, ECR on the right):
In the first two rounds, ECR selects Julio Jones and Michael Thomas, strong picks in a year where Zero RB is going to win a lot of leagues. VBD, however, takes a different approach. With Jones still on the board in Round 1, VBD shows its love of running backs and selects LeSean McCoy, who’s projected to be better compared to the baseline running back than Jones is to the baseline receiver. In Round 2, with 10 running backs and 8 receivers already off the board, VBD steers me to Rob Gronkowski.
While VBD generally favors running backs and receivers, the way this draft has unfolded VBD likes the advantage generated by the #1 tight end more than the 11th best running back or the ninth best receiver. For the same reason, VBD jumps on an elite quarterback (Andrew Luck) in Round 4, much earlier than the ECR draft.
In the middle rounds both ECR and VBD load up on running backs and receivers—not surprising since the expert rankings all incorporate the basic concept underlying VBD and give primacy to those positions. Toward the end of the draft, VBD drafts a DST in the 13th round, bucking conventional wisdom that you should wait until the last two rounds to grab your DST and kicker. I like the VBD strategy—you grab your favorite DST before everyone else jumps on the position, and there’s little difference between the position players available in Rounds 13 and 14.
VBD has gone from ground-breaking concept to maligned whipping boy, but neither is fair. VBD is not a silver bullet for your draft, but it’s an important tool for evaluating players across positions and building your draft board.