Draft Like You Have a Time Machine

Draft Like You Have a Time Machine
Photo by Mohamed Osama / Unsplash

The more I think about it, the more I think the late rounds offer one of the biggest edges in best ball.

Granted, any given late-round pick is unlikely to deliver for you. In fact, late-round selections are so tricky to get right that we've frequently seen high advance rates for late-round picks who don't even provide a meaningful fantasy contribution.

These players are typically dragged along as part of stacks. For example, Quez Watkins did very little last year, yet the half-PPR game log below was good for a 25.9% advance rate.

https://www.rotoviz.com/nflstatexplorer/?selected_player=SP-RB-1001

It's pretty clear why Watkins "produced" a high advance rate—he was pulled along as a stacking partner with Jalen Hurts, who had a much stronger 33.8% advance rate.

We saw similar results last year from Justin Watson (23.2%) and Equanimeous St. Brown (23%). Each WR had just one 10+ point outing all year. But the teams that drafted them were more likely to have already selected Patrick Mahomes (30.6%) and Justin Fields (26.5%).

If late-round advance rates are this noisy, can picks in this range really offer an edge?

The Importance of Late-Round Production

While the odds of hitting on any given late-round pick are very low, it's a good bet that we'll see crucial fantasy contributions from someone in the late-round player pool.

Several players will likely make a significant impact in the best ball playoffs. The tricky part is identifying them ahead of time.

In 2021, Amon-Ra St. Brown was on 29% of the 160 BBM2 finals teams. Only Mark Andrews (66%), Cooper Kupp (46%), and Davante Adams (29%) matched or exceeded that mark. But while Andrews, Kupp, and Adams cost a pick in the top five rounds, St. Brown had a late 14th-round ADP. So the value of hitting on St. Brown in 2021 is hard to overstate, especially because he blew up for a tournament-winning 31.4 half-PPR points in Week 17. He was hugely helpful in getting to the finals and an essential component of the winning roster.

But although St. Brown was "the guy you needed" in 2021, he – surprisingly – didn't have the highest finals advance rate among late-round picks. That honor belongs to Justin Jackson. Jackson was only drafted in 19% of leagues and did nothing throughout best ball's regular season, but he supercharged playoff teams with a 30.2-point outing in Week 16.

https://www.rotoviz.com/nflstatexplorer/?selected_player=SP-RB-1001

Teams that drafted Jackson advanced to the finals at a 0.49% rate. That might not seem all that high... but it's 4.8x higher than the expected finals rate. So simply selecting Justin Jackson nearly quintupled your chances of making the 160-person final.

Byron Pringle was also a major factor. Due to a well-timed spike week, he posted a 0.30% finals rate, nearly 3x higher than expected.

https://www.rotoviz.com/nflstatexplorer/?selected_player=SP-RB-1001

Of course, trying to predict these types of random spikes is impossible.

But at the same time, it's clear that hitting on these types of spikes in the late rounds is extremely powerful. And, while any individual player is a huge longshot to produce that type of outcome, we can expect the late-round player pool at large to generate some highly impactful performances.

Late-Round Playoff Heroes

In 2021, 23 players with an ADP of 140+ were able to hit a 0.14% finals rate or higher. With an ADP of 140 or higher, these players weren't always drafted in the late rounds, but in any given draft, they could be found in Round 14+.

Some of these "hits" are statistical noise; they were dragged along as common combos with highly successful players. But most had a real impact.

2021's late-round playoff heroes were made up of:

  • 9 RBs
  • 8 WRs
  • 4 TEs
  • 2 QBs

In 2022, 22 players hit the same thresholds. And although some of these players (Quez Watkins, Khalil Shakir, Sterling Shepard) were pulled along by their QBs, most had a legitimate impact.

2022's late-round playoff heroes were made up of:

  • 10 WRs
  • 8 RBs
  • 2 TEs
  • 2 QBs

The true heroes in this group were Zay Jones and Jerick McKinnon, who each had huge Week 15 performances. McKinnon also delivered 20.1 points in the final.

But D'Onta Foreman, Tyler Higbee, Tyler Allgeier, K.J. Osborn, and Kendrick Bourne each had a 20+ point outing in Week 15 or 16. At QB, Trevor Lawrence and Jared Goff hit 27+.

Jamaal Williams and Raheem Mostert didn't do much in the single-elimination weeks, but they were vital advance rate contributors who came alive for 19+ point games in the championship game.

Again, the odds of actually hitting on one of these players are very low. That makes each late-round pick worth very little.

But because the production floor is so low in the late rounds, generating points out of those roster spots is extremely powerful. Late-round picks aren't worth much... but they're still very important.

Embracing Uncertainty

The issue with late-round picks is that, by definition, these are players the market isn't confident in. As a result, they are far riskier selections than picks in the early rounds.

But risk isn't inherently bad in fantasy football. For example, I've argued for several years that drafting RBs in the early rounds is risky but potentially worthwhile because understanding risk does not always mean avoiding risk.

Sam Sherman recently had an interesting Twitter thread on Required Rate of Return, outlining the idea that the higher the risk is on a player, the higher their expected return should be.

This concept helps explain why selectively drafting early-round RBs is often worth the risk. The risk is high, but when the payoff hits, you can name a website after it.

We want to be thoughtful about the risk we're taking on in our drafts... but we don't want to draft scared. As long as the requisite payoff is worth it, taking on risk is simply part of the game.

RBs can reward drafters who take on risk in the early rounds, and they can pay off in the late rounds as well.

Last summer, Jerick McKinnon was drafted well behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire and generally behind at least one of Isiah Pacheco or Ronald Jones. He finished as the Chiefs' RB4 in ADP. His floor was very low. But McKinnon had a 21% playoff advance rate and the fifth-best finals advance rate in the entire player pool.

D'Onta Foreman was drafted as a handcuff lottery ticket behind Christian McCaffrey. As a journeyman RB behind a superstar, he could have easily been a wasted pick. But Foreman had a 22% playoff advance rate and the 15th-best finals advance rate.

Drafters were risking a dead roster spot with both selections. But both players provided huge payoffs.

We saw a similar dynamic in 2021 with Rashaad Penny and Darrel Williams.

Penny was viewed as Chris Carson's injury-prone backup. But he broke out at the end of the year, delivering the 32nd-best finals rate and 31.5 points in Week 17.

Williams was seen as a boring handcuff to Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who had a 2nd-round ADP. The market was so confident that Williams had nothing to offer that he was selected in just 28% of BBM2 drafts. Nevertheless, he led the Chiefs' backfield in rushing and receiving yards, posting a 22% playoff advance rate and the 21st-best finals advance rate in BBM2.

Pairing Ceiling and Floor

Ideally, we'd like to have our cake and eat it too. You can make a case that nearly any RB currently on an NFL roster has a theoretical ceiling. But the floor for many of these backs is to be inactive on game day. Preferably, we want to identify backs with underpriced upside but who also provide strong odds of regularly seeing the field on Sundays.

Devin Singletary offered this type of bet in 2021. With an ADP of 142.4, he sometimes made his way into Round 14+. At that price, he was all upside.

At worst, Singletary profiled as the clear No. 2 on the Bills behind Zack Moss. And as it turned out, he was the clear No. 1 for most of the year and delivered a huge payoff. Singletary had a 26% playoff advance rate with the fifth-highest finals rate in 2021.

Jamaal Williams was last year's version of the Singletary bet. With an ADP of 167.5, he could be had in the late rounds, yet he was the locked-in No. 2 behind D'Andre Swift. And his role security isn't just hindsight. Hayden Winks was pounding the table for Williams... noting that The Athletic listed him at 1B on the Lions' depth chart.

https://twitter.com/HaydenWinks/status/1522965849413275650?s=20

It turns out Williams wasn't the 1B... he was the 1A, with Swift turning in a 1D type of season.

On his way to leading the NFL in TDs, Williams posted a 31% advance rate. Despite disappearing for Weeks 15 and 16, he was such a helpful regular-season pick that he still finished with the 49th-best finals advance rate. Williams then spiked in the championship game with 22.2 points.

The market sometimes gets bored with backs like Williams, allowing players in his archetype to slip into the late rounds.

These backs are priority targets.

Any time we can identify a locked-in RB2 in the late rounds, the potential payoff is almost certainly worth the risk. This is especially true when the starter has red flags surrounding his workload or talent level.

RBs who look locked in as clear handcuffs will generally have a higher perceived floor, so costs can be expected to be slightly higher. We're usually talking about a 13th-/14th-round archetype pick rather than a 17th-/18th-round selection. But that premium won't feel very expensive if the bet hits.

Chasing Steam

When building out a best ball portfolio, we want to draft players when they are at their cheapest. Ideally, if a player moves up substantially in ADP, we already have an overweight position on him.

And staying ahead of the market isn't just an exercise in feeling smart; it provides tangible expected value gains, as Mike Leone laid out in his Best Ball Manifesto.

Both scales above measure closing line value rather than real-time ADP/capital value

If reaching for a player who is screaming up boards, we're far less likely to benefit from closing line value. We also have to consider that some of our competitors in the best ball playoffs will have had access to lower prices on the same player. Meaning if you draft a player at his most expensive point, you could still find yourself at a disadvantage even if you get the pick right. In your playoff pods or Week 17, you'll likely face off against the same player on teams that spent less draft capital for the same production—creating the potential for much stronger overall squads.

However, after looking at the late-round playoff heroes from the last two seasons, I'm planning to chase some players up boards.

Which players? I don't know yet—and that is the point.

Onesie Battles

For the most part, we already know the top players at QB and TE for each NFL team. But there are usually a few cases where a starting job is genuinely up for grabs. And given that there are only 32 starters at each position, targeting the winners of these jobs is valuable.

Last year, Geno Smith was drafted in just 3% of all BBM3 leagues, despite it becoming increasingly clear that he had run away with the Seahawks' starting QB job. None of Smith's 969 BBM3 teams made the final, but he was a very strong pick, posting a 29% advance rate.

In 2021, Blake Jarwin was drafted in 97% of BBM2 leagues, while Dalton Schultz was taken in just 13%. Yet Schultz out-snapped Jarwin in the Cowboys' final preseason game.

https://www.nbcsportsedge.com/football/nfl/player-news/10284286

Schultz turned in a breakout season, delivering a 20% advance rate and the 33rd-best finals advance rate. Of course, Schultz was helped by the fact that Jarwin went on injured reserve after Week 8, but through Week 8, Schultz saw 6.3 targets per game to Jarwin's 2.7. So the preseason snaps were actually understating the danger that Jarwin was in.

RB Depth Chart Shakeups

While late summer will give us the occasional QB or TE target, RB depth charts are reliably shuffled during the preseason.

And even if the shuffling doesn't affect the starting RB, correctly identifying the No. 2 RB on a given NFL team can still be highly beneficial.

In 2021, Justin Jackson was selected in just 19% of BBM2 drafts. That makes sense, given early offseason reports.

https://www.nbcsportsedge.com/football/nfl/player-news/10221171

But by August, the reporting had flipped. Far from being on the bubble, Jackson appeared to be the clear No. 2 back on the depth chart.

https://www.nbcsportsedge.com/football/nfl/player-news/10273241

Jackson did very little in his backup role... until Austin Ekeler missed Week 16. Then, with Ekeler inactive, Jackson went off.

Jackson's single spike week was enough to give him the highest finals advance rate in BBM2. Over the last two seasons, only Justin Jefferson has had a higher finals advance rate.

And if you think about it, the fact that Jackson wasn't popular in early drafts made selecting him in August more powerful, not less.

When considered a cut candidate in the early summer, Jackson – understandably – was largely going undrafted. As a result, when he dropped 30 points in Week 16, he was doing so in playoff pods where he wasn't especially common. If you hit on Jackson's Week 16 production, there was a good chance you were the only team in the group with access to those points. Jackson's 30-point outing was a massive score for a late-round pick, and it was also enormous leverage on much of the playoff competition.

So... yes, Jackson got more expensive as the summer went on. But fading him for that reason would have been getting things backward. Jackson should have been even more appealing in late drafts because of his earlier uncertainty; he was a lock to provide leverage on early drafters if he hit.

Crucially, Jackson never got particularly expensive. If drafting Jackson in September cost a 9th- or 10th-round pick, that would be much harder to justify. But instead, he went from being undrafted to being a 17th-round pick. That's a meaningless rise in cost. And even if Jackson jumped to a 14th rounder... the new price would have still represented very little in terms of overall draft capital expenditure. Chasing a player up the board might feel fishy, but as long as he stays in the late rounds, it's likely a sharp play—provided he was going undrafted for a significant portion of the tournament.

In 2022, we saw a similar dynamic with Jaylen Warren and Samaje Perine.

Warren didn't make any real noise until mid-August, but the training camp buzz around him taking over the No. 2 role proved correct.

https://www.nbcsportsedge.com/football/nfl/player-news/10886716

Warren wasn't particularly impactful as a rookie but mixed in for a few helpful games in the fantasy playoffs.

https://www.rotoviz.com/nflstatexplorer/?selected_player=SP-RB-1001

Warren never generated a ton of points, but his drafters were at least helped by the fact that he was selected just 14% of the time. Although he didn't pay off in a considerable way, Warren still had a strong finals advance rate and was a very worthy selection in BBM3 drafts.

Samaje Perine had a bigger regular-season payoff, with a 25% advance rate. He disappeared in the fantasy playoffs but still finished with the 33rd-best finals advance rate.

And, like Jackson and Warren, Perine was an afterthought in early drafts. Every sharp drafter worth his salt knew Chris Evans was the Bengals' backup to draft in May-July.

However, Evans played in the Bengals' final preseason game while Perine rested—a clear indication that Perine was the real No. 2.

https://www.nbcsportsedge.com/football/nfl/player-news/10896836

I was part of the Chris Evans crew in early drafts, so I did not want to hear this news. Fortunately, Ben Gretch, my Ship Chasing co-host, was all over Perine at the close of draft season. Thankfully, that kept me from completely missing the boat.

Still, drafting Perine didn't feel fun because it was a tacit admission that I'd screwed up earlier drafts.

But while admitting mistakes is never fun, we're rarely on an island when we incorrectly project depth charts in early drafts. And those collective mistakes are a reason to prioritize players we ignored to begin draft season.

Perine was selected in just 11% of BBM3 drafts. Yet, if his stretch of relevance occurred four weeks later, he would have been the story of the 2022 best ball season.

The value of late-summer RB information helps explain why spending less draft capital at the position has been more powerful as the summer progresses.

https://establishtherun.com/best-ball-mania-manifesto-a-guide-to-winning-big-on-underdog-fantasy/

With zero RB builds looking most powerful in late drafts, we can benefit from late summer information in multiple ways.

If you hit on a late-round RB on a team specifically structured to benefit from that performance and that hit provides playoff leverage... you're setting your future self up for a fun January.

Draft Like You Have a Time Machine

Let's take "draft like you're right" one step further. Honestly, you want to draft a team that's not just a little right but dead on the money.

Ok then... so let's imagine you're drafting a team right now, and you know the team will make the finals. You're not even done drafting the squad, but you know for a fact that it is finals bound.

While on the clock in the late rounds, the question then becomes, how will your next pick help you take down the top prize in Week 17?

Immediately, skill players become more interesting in this framing. Sure, I'll grant that you could hit on a well-timed spike week from a late-round passer. But imagine we jump into the future, and upon exiting our DeLorean we see that the team you're currently drafting has made the Week 17 finals and is getting strong performances from several early-round picks.

But that's all you know.

And now you're on the clock in the 18th round.

You're picking Desmond Ridder?

As I'll dive into further in a future article, there's no shame in 3QB builds. In fact, if you don't spend early firepower at the position, a QB3 can be a thoughtful way to spend a late-round pick.

But while a late-round QB could provide crucial points for making the playoffs in the first place, your QB3 is not very likely to generate a playoff spike week.

And even if you get a QB spike week, that performance is less likely to separate from the pack than an RB, WR, or TE spike week.

https://www.nbcsportsedge.com/article/best-ball-strategy/how-build-qb-best-ball-playoffs

I'll have more on how to attack the quarterback position in a future article, but suffice it to say that – if hunting for playoff upside – I think you're better off drafting an additional skill player rather than a QB3.

Another issue with taking a late-round QB3 is that these players often lack job security. So while it's plausible that Trey Lance, Brock Purdy, Sam Howell, Desmond Ridder, Mac Jones, Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield, or Ryan Tannehill will produce a playoff spike week, it's also very likely that several of them will not be starting NFL quarterbacks by New Year's Eve. And if you draft a QB who gets benched, that dead roster spot will impact your playoff chances.

Avoiding Dead Roster Spots

Having late-round leverage in the playoffs is very powerful, but it's also hard to achieve before training camps kick off. It's not impossible to hit on players who aren't regularly drafted; it's just that looking for these hits comes with a high chance of producing a dead roster spot. And we want to avoid taking zeroes as much as possible.

In Part 2 of his Best Ball Manifesto, Mike Leone covered an element of drafting that we seemingly have very little control over: how many "live" players BBM3 teams had for the playoff weeks.

Having at least 14 players score more than zero points in the fantasy playoffs significantly boosted expected value, as Leone illustrated with this chart:

https://establishtherun.com/best-ball-mania-manifesto-a-guide-to-winning-big-on-underdog-fantasy/

Leone views this component as mostly luck... and that's because it is mostly luck.

Cooper Kupp was a dead roster spot in last year's playoffs. But Kupp hit 20+ points in 4-of-10 games last year. So if you made the playoffs with an injured Kupp, it wasn't a sign of a weak draft—to make the playoffs without Kupp means you crushed your draft. In other words, Kupp missing the playoffs was bad luck, not bad process.

And to some extent, Leone's findings above are driven by teams not having lost their foundational players. For example, a team with 16 live roster spots is much less likely to have lost an early-round impact player than a team with 13 live players.

But still, some late-round players have had huge impacts, and the more live roster spots you have, the more likely you are to have landed on a late-round playoff hero.

Avoiding taking zeroes is incredibly challenging when drafting in May-June because dead roster spots are most likely in early drafts.

https://establishtherun.com/best-ball-mania-manifesto-a-guide-to-winning-big-on-underdog-fantasy/

Drafting before training camp has even begun will provide stellar prices on some of the most essential players in the upcoming season. But at the same time, there's a lot we don't know right now, and it's ok to admit that. In fact, if we draft with the knowledge that many late-round picks are pure guesses, we can avoid wrecking teams with a ton of dead roster spots.

But what does drafting to avoid dead roster spots look like?

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