Exploiting Best Ball Rankings for your Regular Fantasy Football Draft

Aug 12, 2018

Imagine you’re playing in a half-PPR league, and your commissioner has decided to try something new: In addition to drafting actual players, there will be a “Mr. Reliable” in the player pool. A running back who gives you a guaranteed 18 points every week – no more, no less, no chance of injury. It’s fun to debate how Mr. Reliable compares to Todd Gurley, but he’d certainly a first-round pick. A guaranteed 13 points would be a stellar RB2. That’s because those are the numbers we expect from the running backs we draft as our starters, and reliability is extremely valuable. A guaranteed seven points, however, probably wouldn’t be drafted at all, because you’d never start that guy. Our consensus projections currently have Jamaal Williams projected for 116.6 (half PPR) points. That’s an average of only 7.3 per game – but we’re still drafting him. What gives?

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When you draft a player like Jamaal Williams onto your bench, you’re not hoping for seven bench points every week. You’re taking a chance on the possibility that he wins (or stumbles into) a big workload and turns into an RB1. That’s exactly what happened last year in weeks 10-14 after Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery both got hurt. Over that stretch, Williams averaged 18.7 fantasy points on 19 carries and 4.4 targets. This year, the stumbling has already happened – Williams has the starting job for the first two weeks while Jones is suspended. It’s up to Williams to play well enough to keep it when Jones returns.

“Draft high-upside RBs in the late rounds,” is just about the most conventional fantasy advice there is, but it’s easier said than done. If I ask our podcast hosts Bobby and Tags if they’d rather have D’Onta Foreman or Corey Clement, I expect them to have well-thought-out answers. It’s their job to have an idea of every team’s depth chart and an opinion on the players’ talent. If you don’t eat fantasy football for breakfast, however, it’s a big ask for you to have that same kind of knowledge and be able to assess which late-round running backs have upside. Even if you do spend more time consuming fantasy football content than you’d be comfortable telling your spouse (or your boss), resources like ECR aren’t always helpful for this. Clement and Foreman are currently ranked 51st and 52nd among running backs. Only 51% of experts prefer Clement.

That’s where best ball comes in. If you’re not familiar, best ball is the laziest way to play fantasy football. You draft a team at the beginning of the year, and you’re done. Rather than setting a lineup every week, you just get to set your lineup perfectly for free. Your two RB spots are always the two RBs on your roster that score the most points in any particular week. You never get to add or drop players. The strategy then is to draft six or seven guys, and hope that that’s enough to weather the inevitable injuries. Really volatile players like Amari Cooper become attractive because you never have to worry about starting him when he puts up a donut, but you still reap the benefits of his random two-touchdown, 200-yard explosion.

FantasyPros now has consensus best ball rankings. My theory, then, is that those rankings should have high-upside players ranked higher than normal ECR because the rules of best ball cover up their downside. If you want a quick and easy way to highlight such players, just subtract their best ball rank from their regular ECR rank. I’m comparing to half-PPR for our normal rankings because best ball leagues on Draft.com use half-PPR scoring.

Note: This is pretty easy to do in excel. If you download .csv files of the rankings from both pages, you can add a column with best ball rank to the worksheet with normal ECR using the VLOOKUP function.

Here are the 10 running backs with ECR in the top 70 with the biggest difference:

Running Backs 0.5PPR ECR BB ECR Diff
Peyton Barber 60 49 11
Samaje Perine 67 56 11
Kenneth Dixon 62 52 10
Spencer Ware 65 55 10
Sony Michel 28 20 8
Carlos Hyde 40 32 8
D’Onta Foreman 52 44 8
Doug Martin 55 48 7
LeGarrette Blount 56 50 6
Jamaal Williams 38 34 4

 
If we dig in a little bit, this a believable list of running backs with high upside. Peyton Barber should see significant touches if rookie Ronald Jones gets hurt or underperforms. Kenneth Dixon missed all of last season with an injury, but could compete for Alex Collins‘ job if he stays healthy. Spencer Ware would likely put up RB1 numbers if Kareem Hunt gets hurt. Michel is a talented rookie with some injury questions suppressing his draft position. Carlos Hyde and Jamaal Williams are both competing for potentially big workloads. Foreman is Lamar Miller‘s backup and could just win the job outright. Doug Martin could be a workhorse under the new leadership of Jon Gruden in Oakland. His only real competition is a 32-year-old Marshawn Lynch.

LeGarrette Blount is the only player on this list I wouldn’t really be interested in picking up in the late rounds of a draft. I’m not saying to really reach for these guys, but if you’re deciding between Jamaal Williams and Isaiah Crowell for your 4th or 5th RB in the 9th round, you know what to do.

Here are the 10 wide receivers with the biggest difference:

Wide Receivers 0.5PPR ECR BB ECR Diff
Dez Bryant 54 41 13
Martavis Bryant 68 55 13
Michael Gallup 67 56 11
DeSean Jackson 56 49 7
Brandin Cooks 25 20 5
Calvin Ridley 62 57 5
Ted Ginn 65 60 5
Alshon Jeffery 20 16 4
Robert Woods 32 28 4
Julian Edelman 40 36 4

 
Dez Bryant is still a free agent, but if he ends up in a good situation like Green Bay or Seattle, he could be a WR2. Martavis Bryant is competing with an extremely volatile Amari Cooper and an aging Jordy Nelson – if he can stay out of trouble, his ceiling is pretty high. Michael Gallup is the exciting rookie WR2 for Dak Prescott that just lost Dez.

Hopefully, the next time your cousin ropes you in to be the 12th person in his league at the last minute and you only have a couple hours to prepare, you’ll think of me and my quick and dirty way to generate a list of late-round players with upside. For those wondering, here are the top players under this criterion from the top 30 TEs and QBs.

Tight Ends 0.5 PPR ECR BB ECR Diff
Kyle Rudolph 8 6 2
O.J. Howard 14 12 2
Austin Seferian-Jenkins 20 18 2
Benjamin Watson 22 20 2
Vance McDonald 25 23 2

 

Quarterbacks ECR BB ECR Diff
Jameis Winston 26 17 9
Dak Prescott 19 16 3
Ryan Tannehill 28 25 3
Andrew Luck 10 9 1
Jimmy Garoppolo 13 12 1
Jared Goff 16 15 1
Derek Carr 22 21 1
Case Keenum 24 23 1
Sam Bradford 30 29 1

 
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