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League Analysis and Graphing
David M. Dorey
2004

Here's to another season of people understanding their league!

All the time in the summer is spent, delightfully so, on researching all those NFL players and determing which one you want for your team. Knowing players is critical but it is also not everything. If you played in a league all by yourself, then sure - just learn the players. However, whether it is in an auction or a draft, you will learn very quickly that players are all coveted by everyone. Particularly the ones that appeal to you the most.

The San Diego Chargers provide a wonderful case in point. They have arguably the best running back in the league. They are also considered one of the worst teams in the league. LaDainian Tomlinson is a talented, highly-productive runner but somewhere in the planning process the Chargers apparently have not caught on to the need for a solid team around him.

To win in fantasy football you must score consistently high and have the best total points from your entire team each week. In order to do that , you need to know much more than merely to pick Tomlinson with that first draft pick. You have to understand how your league values the different positions so you can only then assign the proper value to them for an auction or draft. You have to know how to build that high-scoring team and that takes understanding your league.

Think about it - does it really matter if you accurately guess the production of the #35th ranked receiver? Does it really matter if you were completely accurate about the actual draft order of the top 10 running backs for 2004 when the best you could possibly do is to draft one of them? No - what matters most is that in week 17 you are holding the the league trophy. You should play to win and that means more than knowing players - you must know your league.

What you need is a League Analysis and Graphing (LAG). It's pretty easy, fun and probably much more related to you winning than most of your research combined.

League Analysis and Graphing

There are a few steps to follow in order to fully understand your league. While I will try not to get too technical, hang with me and by the end you will be able to do this in about 15 minutes for any league you are in. And you should do it for every league you are in.

There are two factors that is neccessary to understand - how fast does value decline within a position and how does that match against the other positions you need?

There is little more important about your draft and season than the scoring used by your league. This is not because it reveals who scored well last season, but because it is the blueprint for understanding your league and how point values apply to all those players. The first consideration is what position makes sense to draft before deciding the best available.

If you have already played in your league before you will undoubtedly have access to last season's numbers. What you are really interested in are the top 20 players in each position and what each scored for the 2003 season. If you do not have your league's previous scoring or you are in a new league with different scoring rules, you can still determine what the scores would have been by using almost any league management product out there. All should permit anyone to download a free copy or setup a league for no charge as they make their money when you buy their stats for the current year.

Setup a mock league using your scoring system and then review what the stats would have been the previous season. Excellent products like Fantasy League Manager for the desktop or My Fantasy League online allow you to do this in addition to being robust league management tools.

For an example, consider the most commonly used performance scoring system:

Offensive Players Team Defense/Special Teams
Pass TD 3 pts All Touchdowns 6 pts
Rush/Receive TD 6 pts Sacks 1 pts
Pass Yards Divide by 20 Interceptions 2 pts
Rush/Receive Yards Divide by 10 Fumble Recovery 2 pts
2 Point Conversions 2 pts Safeties 2 pts
Field Goals 3 pts    
Extra Points 1 pt    

 

 

 

 

 

After applying that scoring system on the 2003 season, place the top 20 values for each position into a spreadsheet by copying them and pasting it into Excel (I used Fantasy League Manager). You may have to remove player’s names or whatever comes out on the particular report you are using, but through whatever means you want to end with a spreadsheet that contains the top 20 scores in each position for last season using your league's scoring system. Once that is complete, it should end up looking  like this (or optionally with the positional values in columns instead of rows):

Pos 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
QB 316 306 296 294 290 280 276 275 270 268 265 263 263 254 229 226 208 206 202 193
RB 373 345 343 311 277 269 264 236 233 221 217 208 188 187 187 177 175 170 165 161
WR 268 242 196 190 188 183 179 178 168 166 165 165 162 160 158 140 136 134 133 126
TE 152 125 97 74 73 73 72 72 70 66 66 65 62 57 55 55 54 52 51 50
PK 163 157 134 125 123 120 120 114 114 112 106 106 105 105 102 102 101 100 99 99
DEF 166 166 166 152 144 137 135 130 126 123 122 122 119 118 114 111 109 108 107 106

It is easy to use an Excel spreadsheet to create a graph by highlighting any table like the one above and selecting the chart wizard button. Once that pops up a small window, just select the line graph. If you want practice, just copy the above table and paste it into a spreadsheet. Then use the chart wizard to produce the table.

Using the values above, the chart will look like this:

Viewing the graph shows the overall impacts of positions in the league scoring. Graphs are a great way to observe two characteristics for each position - how quickly the line declines and how it matches up against other positions. In this example:

Quarterbacks – As is common in most leagues, quarterbacks are the highest scorers.  This holds true last season with the exception of the top four running backs. However, look at the line. The angle of descent – how quickly value drops from player to player – is downward but not terribly steep. The difference between the 2nd and 12th best quarterback was about 40 points (less than 3 points per game over the season).

Running Backs - Notice that the decline in the first five running backs is pretty dramatic. It starts out with the three highest scoring players in the league last year and then rapidly heads south. While the 12th best runner is better than the 3rd best receiver, there is a 168 point drop from the best rusher to the 12th best. The running back scoring last season was probably the most sharply declining thanks to all those cluttered backfields and not enough true full-time backs.

Wide Receivers - While not as important as quarterback or running back , the top two receivers are a definite cut above the rest and then there is  a very gentle slope for the next dozen or so receivers. It is true – receivers typically have lesser declines in their scoring from player to player than rushers. In all cases, receivers are higher comparable scorers than ends, kickers or defenses but are also always lower than quarterbacks and running backs.

Tight Ends – There were the traditional top three tight ends last season, and then it mirrors wideouts in decline except about 100 points lower at every point. Tight ends are the lowest scoring skill position and other than the best two or three tight ends, they are worse than almost any kicker or defense.

Kickers – This position not only scores less than all others except tight ends, but it has the most flattened line of all meaning there is little difference between any kicker and the next one.

Defense - Top three make a difference over the rest, but after that they are little different than a kicker in terms of points. If you do not manage to get a top three defense, it appears that one defense is about the same as another.

It is evident that three players in pretty much any position are significant advantages, though the scoring drops pretty dramatically moving down from quarterback and running back, to receivers then to defenses/kickers and finally tight ends. Just considering the overall look of what points are scored by position, it is easy to see why quarterbacks and running backs command a premium, though quarterbacks do not lose value from player to player as rapidly as running backs. Most leagues start two running backs each week as opposed to just one quarterback which only further increases demand.

Receivers are valuable initially and then slowly decline but they score well above kickers, defenses and tight ends and most leagues start two - maybe three.

Kickers, defenses and tight ends are relatively inconsequential in this scoring system outside of the best two or three in their position.

3-10-20 Scoring

First examine the first three, the tenth and the twentieth highest scorers per position more in depth. This will yield a look at how the player scoring actually affects players a league and how to truly value player positions in your draft. Fantasy scoring in the NFL is incredibly consistent from season to season - the only real changes are the player names beside the numbers. There is almost always a clear top three in a position and each year roughly the same scoring happens down the line within each position. Using the 3-10-20 gives a good snapshot at the value of positions relative to each other and is not related to the size of any league. It analyzes the decline of value within a position to help understand how to tier players and determine which position is most likely to benefit you in a draft.

Let's take a closer look at the actual numbers:

Pos 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
QB 316 306 296 294 290 280 276 275 270 268 265 263 263 254 229 226 208 206 202 193
RB 373 345 343 311 277 269 264 236 233 221 217 208 188 187 187 177 175 170 165 161
WR 268 242 196 190 188 183 179 178 168 166 165 165 162 160 158 140 136 134 133 126
TE 152 125 97 74 73 73 72 72 70 66 66 65 62 57 55 55 54 52 51 50
PK 163 157 134 125 123 120 120 114 114 112 106 106 105 105 102 102 101 100 99 99
DEF 166 166 166 152 144 137 135 130 126 123 122 122 119 118 114 111 109 108 107 106

After the starters are taken for fantasy teams, each draft typically turns into filling out back-up positions and those players are where sleepers are searched for and where depth is created for your team. The main concern for analysis of the scoring is to determine how to value positions correctly and that means fairly strict adherence to the realities of getting starters. In the average league, that means one quarterback, two running backs, two or three receivers, a tight end, defense and kicker. A review needs to show if some positions mandate taking backups before starters are taken for other positions.

Before crunching any numbers, remember something very important :

"Only about half of the players will meet expectations every year"

Hard as it is to believe, neither my rankings nor yours will be 100% accurate thanks to injuries, team dynamics and the wonderful bit of random luck/misfortune that occurs in the NFL each season (I still think mine will be better, but that's just me).This is pertinent in that it must be considered in the equation of when to take backups (AKA "covering your posterior" in case your starter picks were flops or get injured).

Knowing what the graph has already shown, the next step is to do some averaging that holds true every season. This will be a big help in valuing the positions within themselves and then as they relate to other positions.

  Top 3 Average 4th - 10th
Best Average
Top 3 vs 4-10
Pts Lost
11-20th
Best Average
4-10 vs 11-20
Pts Lost
QB 306 279 27 231 48
RB 354 259 95 183 75
WR 235 179 56 148 31
TE 125 71 53 57 15
PK 151 118 33 103 16
DEF 166 135 31 114 22

Quarterbacks – It is now obvious that a top quarterback can score more than any other position other than those top three running backs. However, falling back to taking a later one in the draft does not hurt as much in points as missing a top running back or receiver. Conversely, the drop-off in points from the 4-10 range to the 11-20 range is still one of the highest in points of any position. This strengthens the old adage – don’t rush to get a quarterback and don’t wait to get a second one. In case a starting QB does not perform to expectations, it will pay off well to have a good replacement. This shows a top 10 quarterback is a benefit, but getting even the best ones are not that much of a relative advantage considering the net effect of delaying other positions.

Running backs - No position declines as rapidly as running backs and only quarterbacks can score as much as a rusher. And likely the position has two starters every week. If I get one wrong, I need a backup to fill in and I have to cover two bye weeks, not just one like for quarterback. I have to give this very early attention in my draft if not the first two picks. And I should not wait to get a decent backup either unless I am very lucky landing a sleeper which is always possible when there are so many unsettled backfield situations. Given the tendency for teams to rely on the committee approach with runners, finding the deeper gems gets harder every season.

Receivers - While receivers are less highly scoring than the previous positions, those top three are pretty valuable. I can gain about 56 points with one of those instead of a 4th to 10th receiver. If I do not have a high draft pick that can reach a top three RB, then I should consider the top three receivers if they are available. I just have to ensure I do not end up with extraordinarily poor running backs. If I do not get a top three receiver, the decline in points is very small waiting all the way to the tenth or even twentieth best receiver. I need to consider that I have to start two or more though, and I need to fill in for bye weeks and earlier pick flops.

Tight Ends - For all the buzz over Gonzalez, Heap and Shockey, in this scoring system I really do not lose much missing them and taking another top ten tight end. Considering that I would have to use a pick for either a starting running back, quarterback or receiver in order to reach them, the benefit does not seem to be a big payoff, particularly knowing that I need to get my quarterback and running back backups early as well. There is just minimal value in taking a tight end early in this scoring system and I would be better off shooting for a sleeper tight end later on than squandering an early pick on one and only netting about one or two points per game over later tight ends.

Kickers - Already almost impossible to predict, even if I get the best kicker over a later one I am rewarding myself with a big one or two points per game overall. I am better off waiting with the rest on kickers and trying to find two later ones that I can mix and match each week. Ever heard of a stud kicker? Me neither.

Defenses - There is an advantage in this scoring system to owning a top defense and the couple extra points would be nice each week. The reality too though is that they too are hard to accurately pick and what is much more effective - since I am dealing with an entire team here - is to get at least two middle of the road defenses that actually match up well with each other week to week. Playing the match-ups with defenses are a good idea, though in this scoring system I need a decent defense to rely on since it needs the top players to get those turnovers and sacks. I am in no hurry to get one, but I do not want to wait too long once they start to be taken.

Again - this shows the value of positions both within themselves and how they relate to each other. On one hand I know that not all picks are golden for a variety of reasons and I have to be good enough to know where I need to start taking backups. And is it appropriate to take a backup player from one over an unfilled starter for another position.

What this sort of analysis shows about the league scoring is that there is no waiting on running backs. Knowing the high value and rapid decline of them, I want three running backs as quickly as I can, with only a quarterback and no more than two receivers taken before my third running back if they are either top 3 players or at least I feel strongly enough about their chances to outplay most of the others in their position. I want a strong quarterback but there does not seem to be a rush to get one, just as long as I can get one in the first ten or so. Even if I wait on a quarterback, I can be okay, it just means I need to take a backup quarterback earlier in case I am wrong about my first QB or he gets injured.

Receivers score well, but there is little difference between the fourth and tenth one, nor even down to the twentieth one. Since I have to start two or three of them, I would not want to wait too long to begin taking them and I do not want to need to rely on any receiver taken after around the 40th one is taken or so.

In this scoring system, I can see there is an advantage to having a top tight end, but nothing nearly as dramatic as it might seem. I would only take one if I felt he fell in the draft to maybe the sixth round or more and that is unlikely to happen with their "names" this season. Since tight end scoring remains so largely unchanged for the lesser players, I am in no rush until I see the others filling up on them.

Kickers? Sorry - no way I squander an early pick on one of them. There is just not enough difference in them to make one single kicker be considered a 16 week starting stud. Defenses are something that looks like offer a small advantage in owning top ones, though I am more likely to wait until the run begins and then grab two before the position gets too light.

This looks at the most common scoring used in fantasy football though many variations exist. The reality in different scoring is that it only tends to change the relationship of the position to all others, there is surprising little change in how players rank out in different scoring systems. The biggest two scoring methods that change the look of how players fall in a ranking is when quarterbacks have all yardage considered the same (which devalues rushing quarterbacks and raises the pure passers) and if there are reception points used since that rewards possession receivers and third down backs.

This sort of analysis is equally as valid for auction leagues as well. You must know how players are valued in your league in order to know what they are truly worth. Don't go blowing a huge chunk of your salary on Tony Gonzalez, for example, if it only nets you about 35 points a year when you can pay more for QB, RB or WR that will yield much bigger dividends in points.

Perhaps this looks involved, but it really isn't. Once you are accustomed to taking prior season results and turning them into spreadsheets and graphs, you can tell more about a league in 15 minutes than any other sort of effort. You can learn more about the league than other team owners that have played for years and who have been blinded by the perceived importance of some individual player they once had. It is about positional value, the relation to other positions in scoring and only then about the individual players.

Remember - the fantasy numbers for each position in your league will be very similar from 2003 to 2004 (unless you change scoring rules). Those numbers remain relatively unchanged each season, it is just that the players scoring them change. That does go back to knowing your players and there is no escaping that picking good or bad players makes a difference. But picking good players that respect a scoring system and uses it to make draft or auction choices puts you in the driver's seat.

Save the Last Draft for Me

Decidedly unscientific and the least reliable, it doesn't hurt to take a gander at last year's draft (if available) in order to see not only which team took which player, but what positions each team took in the first five rounds. By the fifth round, the big battle plans are done and the rest of the draft is mainly filling in and backing up. Great teams are often made so later in the draft with solid picks of sleepers or undervalued players. But that is player-specific, and going into the draft there is a benefit in knowing more about what the early rounds might be.

How likely is Bob to wait on a QB? Will George continue to snap up Randy Moss at the first chance again? The patterns that people establish in the past most often repeat themselves, though draft position also has a lot to do with their selections. Gaining knowledge about your fellow league mates can help you better understand what players may be available to you in different rounds. People certainly can change from year to year, but normally they follow the same pattern if only regarding position.

If you are in a new league, learning the habits of your league mates becomes much more difficult. If they are online, there is always the chance that you can access some other league they were in. It all starts to smack of spying, but reason and the CIA will tell you that it is merely information gathering. Learning about your opponent’s tendencies and player preferences can give you a better feel for your draft and what may be possible. But one caveat - do not rely too heavily on it and make it the last consideration you have in your plans. More than anything, do not allow it to affect any plans you have on acquiring a specific player. If you really want a player badly, just take him and do not play waiting games.

Last year's draft results and the final scoring numbers for players is something that many of you have - don't ignore another tool.

Destiny Favors the Prepared

Analyzing league scoring rules by graphing and then using 3-10-20 analysis gives a great read on the true importance of each position in a league, both within itself and how it relates to the other positions. This is critical because when you use a draft pick, or spend limited salary cap dollars, you must maximize the payback. That only happens when you how the positions score and how quickly you need to establish depth for a position.

You can go into great depth with individual player analysis or you can just borrow a decent cheatsheet, but the fact is that to build an optimized team, you must know when to take players and how much value they can bring. Understand the positional scoring in your league and you can best design your team.

Once armed with this knowledge, you’ll already be ahead of most other drafters who rely more on opinion and recollection more than what actually always happens. The final step - and a big one at that - is taking all this wisdom into your draft and then creating that winning team.