NFL: Interpreting Best Ball Data

NFL: Interpreting Best Ball Data

This article is part of our NFL Observations series.

We recently got some data from the Fanball/NFFC on their 12-team, 20-player best ball drafts over the last two years, and I took a quick look. 

Here are the players from 2018 and 2019 who on average caused teams to finish at least one standard deviation above the expected 6.5 (12-team league):

2018 League Winners

PlayerPosPtsADPNo. of LgsAvg finishAvg VORPSTD VORP%win%cash
Christian McCaffreyRB38116.6765263.66-2.84-4.0527.5%58.0%
James ConnerRB263.6200.3126374.46-2.04-2.9121.8%49.1%
Patrick MahomesQB445.9129.1465264.57-1.93-2.7521.3%47.7%
James WhiteRB259.7111.8665264.61-1.89-2.7018.8%44.6%
Davante AdamsWR327.619.2065264.68-1.82-2.6016.8%44.3%
Zach ErtzTE275.836.3865264.69-1.81-2.5817.2%43.9%
Saquon BarkleyRB359.67.8965264.75-1.75-2.5018.0%43.0%
George KittleTE226.8113.9065264.86-1.64-2.3416.4%42.4%
Tarik CohenRB222.7571.3465264.87-1.63-2.3216.6%42.4%
JuJu Smith-SchusterWR280.245.5865264.96-1.54-2.1918.0%42.6%
Travis KelceTE283.427.6765265.10-1.40-1.9916.2%40.5%
Alvin KamaraRB348.26.0665255.12-1.38-1.9715.9%39.4%
Eric EbronTE206.2152.1365265.12-1.38-1.9615.4%39.0%
Todd GurleyRB366.11.2265265.17-1.33-1.9013.0%36.9%
Adam ThielenWR298.629.8265265.21-1.29-1.8414.6%38.6%
Chicago BearsTDSP198201.6865265.28-1.22-1.7315.0%38.7%
Tyreek HillWR299.428.1165255.29-1.21-1.7314.3%37.9%
Robert WoodsWR261.171.4265245.32-1.18-1.6815.1%38.1%
Tre'Quan SmithWR88.7219.1216035.40-1.10-1.5714.1%36.1%
Jared CookTE187.8158.5065265.44-1.06-1.5113.0%35.9%
Kenny GolladayWR207.1135.6865265.49-1.01-1.4412.8%34.9%
Chris CarsonRB181.5117.5765235.53-0.97-1.3911.9%34.2%
Austin EkelerRB157173.3564685.56-0.94-1.3412.3%34.1%
Aaron JonesRB171.490.7165265.57-0.93-1.3212.2%33.3%
Stefon DiggsWR245.632.7765265.58-0.92-1.3111.2%32.8%
Michael ThomasWR307.614.8865265.63-0.87-1.2510.0%31.5%
Matt RyanQB371.1129.6965265.64-0.86-1.2212.0%32.6%
Calvin RidleyWR192.6146.0765255.67-0.83-1.1912.5%33.5%
Tevin ColemanRB181.262.5665265.68-0.82-1.1610.8%32.4%
Adrian PetersonRB189143.4220825.70-0.80-1.1411.1%32.1%
Tyler LockettWR205.5141.6965255.73-0.77-1.1011.5%32.4%
T.J. YeldonRB173.1195.1459385.76-0.74-1.0611.4%31.2%
Nick ChubbRB190.584.8065245.76-0.74-1.0511.7%32.6%
Matt BreidaRB162.5157.1865055.78-0.72-1.0311.7%31.4%
Amari CooperWR209.437.5065265.78-0.72-1.0211.0%30.8%

Before we get into the conclusions, let me explain the table above. I looked at each player's average finish, i.e., the place where teams who drafted him finished on average in their standings, and subtracted it from 6.5, the expected average if a player merely earned his draft slot, to get Average Value Over Replacement (Avg VORP.) 

I also tracked the number of league winners and money finishers (spots 1-3) by percentage, and you can see it tracks the average finish pretty closely. I think the average finish is a better barometer than the percent of cashes because the sample is larger, but it's good that it aligns well with the ultimate goal which is finishing in the money. 

I also noted the No. of leagues in which a player was drafted. Tre'Quan Smith teams did unexpectedly well in 2018, but that was a sample of only 1,603 leagues and should probably be thrown out since he scored only 88.7 points all year, i.e., it was basically dumb luck. (I also eliminated anyone drafted in fewer than 500 leagues from consideration at all.)

Also, I took the standard deviation of the average finish (0.7 in 2018) and divided the Avg. VORP by it to get the total number of standard deviations a player was above or below average in a given year (STD VORP.) This measures how much of an outlier he was, i.e., how much of an impact he made. 

I listed each player's ADP too, but I didn't use it because it's obviously priced in – average finish for a player in the 20th round includes a full team of other players drafted in Rounds 1-19. Average finish for a player drafted in the first round only includes a team of other players drafted in Round 2-20. 

For 2018 (and it's the same in 2019 below), Christian McCaffrey was by far the most valuable player. After that, the descent in value is more gradual. Even Patrick Mahomes' monster 50-TD season didn't crack the top two and was nowhere near McCaffrey's, despite Mahomes having a much cheaper ADP. 

Of the 36 difference makers, two were QBs, 15 were RBs, 12 were receivers including the aforementioned Smith, five were TEs and one was the Bears defense. Among players drafted in the top two rounds (ADP 24 or lower), there were six players, four of which were running backs and two of which were receivers. If we extend the "difference-maker" category 32 more players deep to half a standard deviation better than average (.35), then we pick up three more running backs and one receiver. In short, among the top 67 most impactful players, more than twice as many backs from Rounds 1-2 were difference makers than receivers. (Overall there were 13 RB, 10 WR and one TE taken in the first-two rounds in 2018.)

The sweet spot for difference-maker receivers in 2018 was in Rounds 3-5 (picks 25-60.) Of the 12 who were a full standard deviation above expectation, five were taken in those rounds. For backs, there was not a single one. If we extend our range to half a standard deviation, we add two more receivers from those rounds and not a single extra running back. 

Two top tight ends (Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz) were difference makers, while three others came from the late-middle rounds. 

Now let's look at who destroyed you:

2018 League Killers

PlayerPosPtsADPNo. of LgsAvg finishAvg VORPSTD ORP%win%cash
Le'Veon BellRB02.2665269.773.274.670.8%3.9%
Devonta FreemanRB14.121.0665268.481.982.831.9%9.2%
Jerick McKinnonRB027.4763408.361.862.652.5%10.6%
LeSean McCoyRB114.824.9765257.961.462.082.6%11.5%
Derrius GuiceRB037.0643847.841.341.913.8%13.5%
Dez BryantWR0106.3565017.821.321.884.0%14.3%
Leonard FournetteRB120.411.2765267.761.261.793.0%12.0%
David JohnsonRB234.83.2965267.741.241.772.7%12.7%
Delanie WalkerTE9.281.3665267.681.181.683.7%14.4%
Rob GronkowskiTE126.823.7565267.671.171.673.4%14.2%
Martavis BryantWR45.9146.9063657.661.161.654.4%15.4%
Marqise LeeWR0119.6663897.651.151.635.0%15.9%
DeMarco MurrayRB0181.7054637.641.141.634.5%16.3%
Dalvin CookRB14214.2665267.621.121.593.1%13.1%
Jason WittenTE0163.095917.611.111.584.1%15.2%
Pierre GarconWR58.684.6765267.581.081.544.9%16.0%
Rishard MatthewsWR7.4127.8165267.521.021.464.6%16.7%
Samaje PerineRB6183.8653917.501.001.434.6%16.5%
Hunter HenryTE072.5310707.470.971.384.9%15.1%
Doug BaldwinWR137.129.8465267.440.941.334.5%16.6%
Jimmy GaroppoloQB55.2112.9765267.430.931.325.0%16.6%
Jordan HowardRB155.625.5365267.420.921.313.6%15.7%
Jay AjayiRB41.444.9865267.410.911.304.7%16.8%
DeVante ParkerWR60.9103.7865237.380.881.265.5%18.8%
Allen HurnsWR55.6135.9164927.380.881.254.9%17.0%
D'Onta ForemanRB10.7130.1364567.380.881.254.9%17.4%
Kelvin BenjaminWR67.1112.1365267.350.851.214.9%17.2%
A.J. GreenWR149.419.5765267.320.821.173.7%15.7%
Charles ClayTE37.4161.5265267.310.811.154.9%17.4%
Tyler EifertTE38.9141.6665247.300.801.144.7%17.3%
Cameron MeredithWR24.4141.2565257.300.801.144.9%18.0%
Alex SmithQB159.8142.8965267.290.791.125.3%17.6%
Austin Seferian-JenkinsTE26157.1865267.280.781.125.4%17.6%
Demaryius ThomasWR156.744.3365267.260.761.095.7%17.8%
Tyler KroftTE7.6210.7941337.230.731.055.4%18.8%
Sam BradfordQB16.7214.6017197.230.731.054.9%17.2%
Corey ColemanWR12.6211.9234057.230.731.045.1%18.0%
Tyrod TaylorQB46.15198.7655967.230.731.035.1%17.9%
Ronald JonesRB20.773.5665267.200.700.995.6%18.9%

Le'Veon Bell, who sat out the whole year, just murdered teams, given his first-round cost. After him it was more gradual, but as you can see the running backs giveth, but they also taketh away. Of the 39 qualifying team-destroyers, 14 were backs, eight were tight ends, four were quarterbacks and 13 were receivers. But seven of the eight worst players were running backs, the lone exception being Dez Bryant whose ADP was 106 and who got you zero points. 

In sum, early round running backs in 2018 were most likely to win you the league, but they were also most likely to make you finish last. Keep in mind, though that fourth place pays the same as 12th place, so as long as you don't have any major side bets, running backs were still your best bet in the early rounds in 2018. 

Let's take a look at last year's numbers:

2019 League Winners

PlayerPosPtsADPNo. of LgsAvg finishAvg VORPSTD VORP%win%cash
Christian McCaffreyRB446.4244553.22-3.28-4.5036.7%66.4%
Austin EkelerRB291.18844554.20-2.30-3.1622.9%51.4%
Lamar JacksonQB446.9513244554.44-2.06-2.8320.7%48.4%
Michael ThomasWR366.91044554.71-1.79-2.4515.8%44.3%
D.J. CharkWR216.42199104.74-1.76-2.4118.0%45.1%
Aaron JonesRB298.53144554.81-1.69-2.3216.1%42.8%
Darren WallerTE204.318733104.87-1.63-2.2417.4%42.8%
Mark AndrewsTE207.214044554.93-1.57-2.1617.4%43.2%
Chris GodwinWR274.14744554.94-1.56-2.1516.3%41.9%
New England PatriotsTDSP22320744545.06-1.44-1.9816.5%41.0%
Terry McLaurinWR191.92205255.12-1.38-1.8917.1%39.6%
John BrownWR220.114144555.15-1.35-1.8513.8%38.4%
DeVante ParkerWR224.518843055.16-1.34-1.8414.6%38.7%
Dalvin CookRB292.41844555.27-1.23-1.6912.5%36.4%
Jameis WinstonQB337.912444555.28-1.22-1.6714.3%36.8%
Austin HooperTE178.29844555.32-1.18-1.6314.2%37.3%
Keenan AllenWR238.32644555.34-1.16-1.6014.1%37.0%
George KittleTE206.22444555.36-1.14-1.5714.9%37.2%
Jamison CrowderWR177.115844545.40-1.10-1.5113.5%35.8%
Miles SandersRB208.68344315.41-1.09-1.4914.0%36.7%
Dak PrescottQB354.1514044555.48-1.02-1.4012.1%34.8%
Chris ConleyWR147.72255165.50-1.00-1.3811.8%33.5%
A.J. BrownWR194.720032495.50-1.00-1.3813.2%35.1%
Pittsburgh SteelersTDSP18821944465.53-0.97-1.3313.7%35.7%
Tyler LockettWR218.15044555.54-0.96-1.3213.8%34.5%
Cooper KuppWR247.65144555.54-0.96-1.3112.7%33.6%
Deebo SamuelWR162.618142105.58-0.92-1.2712.5%32.7%
Marvin JonesWR193.98544555.58-0.92-1.2611.3%33.3%
Allen RobinsonWR238.65744555.59-0.91-1.2512.0%34.5%
Leonard FournetteRB259.42844555.59-0.91-1.2511.9%33.7%
Russell WilsonQB347.1511244555.64-0.86-1.1912.0%33.4%
Cole BeasleyWR180.821124325.64-0.86-1.1810.8%32.2%
Zach ErtzTE213.62544555.68-0.82-1.1312.5%32.5%
Courtland SuttonWR213.68844555.69-0.81-1.1211.0%32.7%
Mike EvansWR230.72144555.69-0.81-1.1111.9%31.4%
Michael GallupWR179.913044555.72-0.78-1.0810.6%31.0%
D.J. MooreWR230.55044555.72-0.78-1.0712.0%32.9%
Derrick HenryRB255.53744555.73-0.77-1.0611.2%31.9%
Amari CooperWR232.73044555.73-0.77-1.0611.3%32.6%
Nick ChubbRB2501844555.73-0.77-1.0510.8%31.4%
Jared CookTE155.17744555.77-0.73-1.0111.1%31.1%

Once again McCaffrey was the overwhelming difference maker, even more so, despite his high acquisition cost. And again a quarterback, Lamar Jackson in this case, despite having a season for the ages at ADP 132, didn't even finish second. Quarterbacks lack anything close to the upside running backs have in this format. 

Interestingly, while the top two impact players were running backs last year, many more receivers disproportionately helped your chances to win. Among the 41 players above the one standard-deviation threshold, a whopping 21 of them were receivers, six tight ends, two defenses, four quarterbacks and only eight running backs. 

Among players taken in the top-two rounds, three running backs and two receivers hit the standard deviation threshold. One other top two-round back and no receiver hit the half-SD threshold. In total, four top-two round backs and two receivers significantly helped your cause in 2019. (There were 12 RB, 10 WR and 3 TE total in the first two rounds last year with two WR tying for ADP 24.)

In Rounds 3-5, picks 25-60, three running backs and six wide receivers cracked the 1 SD mark. Two running backs and three wideouts in that range reached the 0.5 SD threshold. Overall there were 18 wideouts and 16 backs taken in that range. 

Bottom line, in 2019, the top two difference makers were again running backs, but they comprised only three of the top 10, which also included three wideouts, two tight ends, two quarterbacks and the Patriots defense.

2019 League Killers

PlayerPosPtsADPNo. of LgsAvg finishAvg VORPSTD VORP%win%cash
A.J. GreenWR04244558.802.303.161.7%8.4%
Andrew LuckQB08137828.471.972.712.9%10.2%
Antonio BrownWR16.12144558.421.922.643.1%10.7%
JuJu Smith-SchusterWR110.61544558.161.662.272.8%10.8%
Jerick McKinnonRB010943158.121.622.223.8%13.4%
Doug BaldwinWR0836238.001.502.065.3%14.8%
Brandin CooksWR110.53944557.941.441.982.9%12.4%
Robert FosterWR12.316440417.771.271.754.7%15.5%
Melvin GordonRB156.61644557.641.141.563.9%15.4%
Derrius GuiceRB57.46544557.591.091.504.6%16.1%
D'Onta ForemanRB015139807.581.081.485.4%17.5%
David NjokuTE15.18944557.581.081.484.5%16.2%
N'Keal HarryWR32.613743497.571.071.475.0%16.6%
Ben RoethlisbergerQB16.2512744517.571.071.475.0%15.8%
Eric EbronTE86.57944557.561.061.454.7%16.7%
Austin Seferian-JenkinsTE01996327.521.021.404.4%16.8%
Rodney AndersonRB01975977.490.991.365.7%17.9%
Devin FunchessWR6.213444367.480.981.345.1%17.0%
Kerryon JohnsonRB73.73244557.460.961.324.6%16.9%
Trey BurtonTE22.411744557.450.951.304.6%17.1%
T.J. YeldonRB22.519333727.420.921.265.0%18.2%
Odell BeckhamWR184.41444557.420.921.263.4%15.5%
Le'Veon BellRB200.31044557.410.911.253.7%14.8%
Sony MichelRB139.24544557.410.911.255.4%17.3%
Chris HerndonTE1.713444557.410.911.255.2%16.9%
Patrick MahomesQB314.553844557.400.901.244.3%15.7%
Damien HarrisRB1.211844517.360.861.195.6%18.0%
Nick FolesQB45.120037627.360.861.185.4%18.3%
James ConnerRB145.51344557.350.851.173.5%15.2%
Cam NewtonQB22.411444547.340.841.165.2%17.6%
David JohnsonRB141.5744557.320.821.134.0%16.0%
O.J. HowardTE83.96144557.320.821.135.0%17.4%
Lamar MillerRB07138557.310.811.115.2%18.4%
Davante AdamsWR188.4844557.310.811.114.0%16.1%
Dante PettisWR34.77944557.300.801.105.7%18.0%
Chicago BearsTDSP11714244557.280.781.064.8%17.3%
Elijah McGuireRB020410267.270.771.066.8%19.8%
T.Y. HiltonWR114.92944557.250.751.046.3%18.5%
Tarik CohenRB148.55544557.250.751.035.0%17.9%
Todd GurleyRB206.51344557.240.741.024.4%17.1%
Joe FlaccoQB103.121318757.240.741.025.4%19.1%
Hakeem ButlerWR020912667.240.741.017.0%19.5%
Zay JonesWR44.817444077.230.731.015.4%18.4%

A.J. Green, a player universally drafted, but who didn't play at all, was last year's Le'Veon Bell. Andrew Luck, who fits the same description, was the second worst choice. Otherwise, the busts were more evenly distributed with six of the top-10 being wideouts.

One interesting bust was Mahomes, who cost you more than a full standard deviation despite scoring 315 fantasy points. Quarterbacks with top-40 ADPs have little room for error in this format. 

If I had to offer advice from this sample (admittedly only two seasons), it would be to draft at least one running back in the first two rounds, at least two receivers in Rounds 3-5 and no QBs before Round 4. Also, don't be afraid to pay up for tight end. While last year the two biggest profit sources were Darren Waller and Mark Andrews, both of whom came cheaply. George Kittle and Zach Ertz at picks 24 and 25, respectively, also delivered a nice profits, while Ertz and Travis Kelce both delivered in 2018. 

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Chris Liss
Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.
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