What Are The Odds Your Draft Pick is a Bust? (2018 Fantasy Football)

Aug 27, 2018

Bobby Sylvester recently pointed out that only 20% of defenses drafted in the top 5 at the position over the last three years have actually finished in the top 5. Over the past five years, that number only jumps to 24% (6/25). In fact, the No. 1-drafted defense only did better than 5th once. No ranked spot past the first produced a top-10 defense more than 60% of the time. This is pretty good evidence that you shouldn’t prioritize drafting a D/ST at all. If you’re drafting more than a few days before the season starts, just don’t draft one – spend that roster spot on another backup RB until Week 1. That at least gives you another shot at the next Kareem Hunt.

What about other positions? When you draft Melvin Gordon as the seventh RB off the board, you aren’t really doing that thinking he’s going to score you 264 PPR points, which is what last years No. 7 RB, LeSean McCoy did. You’re hoping that he finishes in the top 10 and turns out to be worth his first-round price, but there are plenty of other possible outcomes. It’s possible that he takes a step forward and ends up the best RB in fantasy. It’s also possible then he ends up an RB2 – not quite worth his draft price, but still a fantasy starter. And like any running back, it’s possible he breaks his wrist in Week 1 and sits out the season, just like David Johnson did after being the first-overall pick last year. When you draft a player, you’re drafting a range of outcomes. We like to call late-round fliers “lottery tickets,” but Melvin Gordon is a lottery ticket too – just a better one.

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How much better a lottery ticket is he, compared to someone you can draft in the ninth round? I measured, over the past five years, how often players drafted in each round met the benchmarks that qualify them as fantasy starters. I’m basing this on 12-team PPR leagues, so an RB1 is a guy who finishes in the top 12 at the position. An RB2 finishes in the top 24, and an RB3 the top 36. I consider players outside the top 36 at their position to be non-starters. This analysis considers the full range of draft positions for players, rather than just grouping them by ADP. For example, Jordy Nelson had an ADP of 11.4 in 2017 with a standard deviation of 2.4. Using the assumption that each player’s draft position is described by a normal distribution, this means he was drafted in the first round about 60% of the time, and in the second round the other 40%, so Nelson’s result last year contributes to the numbers for both rounds.

Here’s the data that fed these graphs:

Round R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 R8 R9
RB1 49% 43% 32% 16% 11% 8% 7% 15% 13%
RB2 14% 29% 26% 26% 19% 11% 18% 14% 17%
RB3 12% 11% 5% 11% 18% 28% 19% 18% 19%
Non-Starter 25% 17% 36% 47% 52% 52% 55% 53% 51%
RB<=2 63% 72% 58% 42% 30% 20% 26% 29% 30%


Round R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 R8 R9
WR1 60% 51% 29% 17% 27% 24% 15% 10% 8%
WR2 16% 21% 28% 29% 19% 15% 13% 11% 12%
WR3 10% 10% 12% 14% 13% 15% 19% 20% 15%
Non-Starter 14% 18% 31% 40% 41% 46% 53% 59% 66%
WR<=2 76% 72% 57% 46% 46% 39% 29% 21% 19%

There’s a lot to unpack here. The first observation is that a lot of players bust, even in the early rounds. That running back you take in the first round because you think he’s a “sure thing” still has more than a 20% chance of being a non-starter for one reason or another. It’s also clear that the market does a much better job of predicting WR outcomes than RB outcomes (in PPR – who knew?). First-round WRs have a 60% chance of ending up as a WR1, and that only drops to 51% in the second round. By contrast, first-round RBs meet expectations only 49% of the time, worse than a second-round WR. WRs have a quick drop off after the second round, but are generally “safer” until the seventh round.

There are no sure things in fantasy football, but an early-round WR in PPR is about as close as it gets. If you draft WRs back-to-back, the expected outcome is about 1.48 players at WR2 or better. Put another way, there is only about a 2.6% chance that they both bust, and a 27% chance that one of them does. However, there is a lot of value in the middle rounds. This suggests a strategy where you anchor your team around a reliable WR in the first round, support him with value WRs in rounds 5-8, and take as many lottery-ticket RBs as you can in the rounds where WRs don’t have a clear advantage.

The First Half of the First Round

What about really early RBs? Maybe RBs taken in the first round have a 46% chance of paying off as a whole, but what about the top tier? This year, most experts put Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson in a category of their own. You’re not really deciding between taking a WR and an RB until you get past that group. What if we look specifically at running backs taken in the first half of the first round? Here’s the graph for running backs taken in the top 6 overall, separated by draft pick:

We’re getting into some very-small-sample-size territory, which is why it looks like the third pick looks better than the first two – those are heavily influenced by 2 performances: David Johnson being a complete bust last year and Le’Veon Bell playing only six games in 2015. What this does tell us is that we’re pretty good at knowing what high-end running backs will do if they stay healthy. If you draft one of those top four guys, you can be confident that he will be an RB1 if he’s healthy – but you have to respect at least a 25% chance that his season is lost to injury.

PPR Takeaways

  • A late-first-round WR is as safe a pick as you can make in fantasy.
  • Even the best RBs will end up being non-starters more than 25% of the time.
  • RBs taken after the third round have more than a 50% chance of being non-starters, and WRs are just as risky by the seventh.
  • Quality over quantity for WRs is a reasonable strategy in PPR.

Standard Leagues

“Well duh, FantasyPros,” you might say, “of course high-end WRs are good in PPR and RBs are a crapshoot. We knew that already! What about real fantasy football? What about standard leagues?” Lucky are you, reader because I thought you might ask that. Here are the graphs using standard ADP and scoring:

And the data:

Round R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 R8 R9
RB1 44% 44% 28% 14% 9% 3% 7% 13% 15%
RB2 17% 26% 29% 27% 19% 16% 21% 17% 19%
RB3 15% 10% 7% 8% 19% 25% 18% 14% 13%
Non-Starter 24% 21% 36% 51% 53% 56% 54% 55% 54%
RB<=2 60% 69% 57% 41% 28% 19% 28% 30% 34%


Round R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 R8 R9
WR1 51% 46% 26% 7% 13% 13% 5% 6% 6%
WR2 22% 23% 27% 31% 33% 23% 18% 14% 12%
WR3 14% 17% 20% 23% 23% 20% 19% 20% 14%
Non-Starter 13% 14% 27% 39% 32% 43% 58% 60% 68%
WR<=2 73% 69% 53% 38% 46% 37% 23% 20% 18%

As you might expect, much of the advantage wide receivers had in PPR vanishes. A first-round WR in PPR had a 60% chance of being a WR1, 11 percentage points better than the odds that a first-round RB ends up an RB1, at 49%. In standard, that gap is cut to 7%. (51% for WRs compared to 44% for RBS.) Wide receivers drop off more dramatically in standard after the early rounds – WRs are still less likely to bust in the middle rounds but aren’t much more likely than RBs to end up being studs. Both WRs and RBs have about a 10% chance of ending up in the top 12 at their position when drafted in the seventh to ninth rounds of a PPR draft. In standard this is still true for RBs, but that probability gets cut in half for WRs.

Of all the WR1s drafted in the first nine rounds, 71% come from the first three rounds in standard, compared to only 58% in PPR. However, it’s not like there’s a glut of mid-round RBs to make up for the weakness of mid-round WRs. Mid-round WRs are still much more likely to end up being fantasy starters than RBs, even if they are no more likely to break out and be WR1s. RB1s drafted in the first nine rounds came from the first three about 65% of the time in both formats. This tells us that the early rounds are even more important in standard. If you draft a WR in the first round and he busts, it’s going to be much harder to find that kind of production elsewhere. This supports the conventional wisdom of prioritizing running backs early on in standard. Even though your mid-round receivers are less likely to break out and be studs than in PPR, they are still much better value than the running backs available in that range.

Standard Takeaways

  • Early WRs lose much of the reliability advantage they have over RBs in PPR.
  • A mid-round WR is no more likely to break out and be a league winner than an RB drafted in that range but is still much more likely to be a fantasy starter.
  • The facts mean you can’t afford to skimp on RBs in the early rounds.

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Jacob Herlin is a Senior Data Analyst for FantasyPros. For more from Jacob, follow him @jacoblawherlin.

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