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ADP versus Draft Round (January 2020)

With the dynasty offseason in full swing, and therefore – “rookie time!” – which round(s) of the NFL draft do the players dynasty owners come to value the most come from? What is the “danger” of taking a prospect you “really like” who ends up being drafted late?

With the 2019 NFL season behind us, the eyes of the dynasty community fully turn to the offseason. Every year, so much of the focus on digging into the rookie class is trying to find the outliers – the late-round sleepers and undrafted gems owners hope to snag late in their rookie drafts in order to get a leg up on their league mates. Over the next few months, every draft analyst and dynasty player will come to fall in love with a few of these players, “our guys” as we often affectionately call them.

But, just how important are those draft darlings compared to “everyone’s guys”, the players at the top of most NFL mock drafts, and what can the first post-season ADP tell us about the film grinding and analytic gymnastics we’re all about to put ourselves through? Are there patterns to discover in the chaos? To put it another way, just how important is NFL draft capital when it comes to average draft position? Is it sometimes as simple as “believing what the NFL is telling you” about a player? How should you weigh draft capital when it comes to your upcoming rookie drafts? 

January ADP is an often underrated set of data. Where preseason ADP is often biased by the dynasty community echo chamber, full of hyped prospects and hopeful breakouts, the first ADP of the post-season is a fairly accurate indication of what actually came to pass. Players like Kalen Ballage, Geronimo Allison, and Donte Moncrief were on the verge of cracking the top 100 players in August, but now at season’s end, they’re nowhere to be found. Even rookie value is affected. Remember back in August when we were spending late 2nd or early 3rd round rookie picks on players such as Jakobi Meyers, Dexter Williams, and KeeSean Johnson, players drafted late in the NFL Draft, or not drafted at all? Could they turn into productive NFL players someday? Possibly, but for now, at season’s end, they’re again entirely off the radar of dynasty players.

Now, a few obvious caveats to what we’re about to explore. First, do some players drafted early in the NFL Draft bust? Of course, absolutely. We all know their names, and we’ve all been burned by some “can’t miss” player. Second, do some late-round picks or undrafted players end up making a big impact? Certainly. All of us have drafted players late in our rookie drafts who went on to hit it big for our rosters. Finally, this is only an exploration of draft capital compared to ADP, not fantasy production. ADP is not the end-all, be-all of fantasy football value, but it is at least a good indication of where the community values players. Factors such as a player’s age, health, or the variation in league settings can greatly impact ADP versus usefulness to our rosters.

Let’s begin. What do the numbers from January 2020’s average draft positions for one quarterback, point per reception leagues tell us? 

* Exactly 50% of the top 200 overall players in ADP were drafted in either the first or second round of the NFL Draft. 

* Nearly 80% were drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft.

* Exactly 75% of the top 24 players in ADP were drafted in either the first or second round of the NFL Draft.

* 83% of players in the top 48 were drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft.

I found these numbers to be rather eye-opening. If you want to draft a player in your rookie draft who will end up being very highly valued, you almost certainly have to draft a rookie picked in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft – betting against percentages like 83% is not a long-term winning strategy. Remember also, I am looking at one quarterback ADP here, not Superflex, so many of the numbers above aren’t even skewed towards the overwhelming number of successful quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft compared to their later round peers. Of the twenty-five quarterbacks who appear in the 1QB January 2020 ADP, only seven weren’t drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. 

Let’s break these numbers down by position. As mentioned above, I did not bother exploring quarterbacks, as the outcome of the importance of being an NFL first round quarterback was obvious.

Running Backs:

A few observations from the above chart for the running backs:

* Only 2 running backs in the top 12 ADP were drafted after round 2 – Alvin Kamara and Aaron Jones. 

* Only 1 running back in the top 12 ADP was drafted after round 3 – Aaron Jones. 

* From the top 24 ADP running backs, only 1 was drafted in round 4 (Marlon Mack), 1 in round 5 (Aaron Jones), 1 in round 7 (Chris Carson), and 1 was undrafted (Austin Ekeler). 

* There are nearly as many undrafted running backs in the top 36 ADP running backs as there are running backs from rounds 4, 5, 6, and 7 combined.

Conclusion: 

Even without factoring in the upcoming addition of the 2020 rookie running backs, these numbers do not bode well for a significant rise in value for some of the popular mid-tier running backs from the 2019 class such as Bryce Love, Justice Hill, or Ryquell Armstead. It also seems to place a ceiling on the future value of running backs such as Darrell Henderson, David Montgomery, Alexander Mattison, and Devin Singletary, who were all drafted in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Other recent post-round three running backs which were darlings to some? Nyheim Hines, Mark Walton, Ito Smith, Chase Edmonds, Kalen Ballage, Jordan Wilkins, John Kelly to name a few from 2018. Are any of them really still on your radar? Remember Samaje Perine? Did you pound the table for Joe Williams? Donnel Pumphrey? Wayne Gallman? All fourth-round running backs from 2017.

Again, is every player doomed to bust if taken later than round two or three? No, as the aforementioned Marlon Mack and Tarik Cohen both came from that same year’s fourth round. Simply be wary what the NFL is trying to tell you if they take a popular dynasty running back name past round 2, or especially round 3. The hit rate is not something to bank your long-term success upon.

The number of undrafted running backs making an appearance is also noteworthy, as they’re clearly not a group to be ignored when it comes to your rookie drafts or, more likely, offseason waivers. Paying attention to those camp reports can land you players like Ekeler, Matt Brieda, or Philip Lindsay. 

Wide Receivers:

A few observations from the above chart for the wide receivers:

* These numbers are even more pronounced than the running back numbers.

* About 92% of the top 24 ADP wide receivers come from the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. The only two players to make the cut? Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs.

* About 92% of the top 36 ADP wide receivers were taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. The undrafted veteran Adam Thielen joins Tyreek and Stefon as the only three wide receivers in this group.

Conclusion: 

It isn’t often we see a number in a statement so vividly descriptive like “92% of the top 36 wide receivers came from the first three rounds of the NFL Draft” when it comes to predicting fantasy football. With the feeling of many that the 2020 and 2021 wide receiver classes are very deep, keep this data in mind when it comes to how you place value on those players if they fall later than expected. Many dynasty players were still drafting Equanimeous St. Brown highly in their rookie drafts after he fell to the sixth round in 2018. Two highly regarded dynasty prospects, Hakeem Butler and Kelvin Harmon experienced a similar drop to rounds four and six in the 2019 NFL Draft. While the jury is still out on these players, the numbers above aren’t on their side.

Unlike running backs, when it comes to undrafted wide receivers coming into almost any kind of value, they’re just so extremely rare. Outside of a veteran like Adam Theilen or a player like Robby Anderson, who found himself as almost the only game in town for year on a Jets team devoid of talent at the position, the only other noteworthy undrafted wide receiver of any value to appear is Preston Williams, who had all the talent but fell due to off-field issues. Unless you are able to find a player like that in a given draft class, you’re almost certainly better off avoiding undrafted wide receivers altogether and focusing on another position.

Tight Ends:

A few observations from the above chart for the wide receivers:

* Why look at only 24 tight ends? Why not at least 36, or at least 32? Only 29 tight ends made the top 200 in ADP. Related – yikes, tight end is such a thin position!

* The top 12 tight ends are still dominated by early picks – 83% come from the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. However, it should be noted that the top tight end in ADP, George Kittle, was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. The top producing tight end, Travis Kelce, was drafted in the third round.

Conclusion: 

Tight end is such a wasteland position that your best two strategies seem to be either draft a young tight end who was drafted highly, hold onto them as they develop, and hope for the best, or find a veteran like Jared Cook going to a good situation. Tight end is a position that requires just as much scheme-fit as it does draft capital or talent. If you have one and not the other, you can end up with O.J. Howard. Without having one of those top tight ends, best of luck – this position is just as much as an enigma to you as it is to the rest of us!

Final Thoughts: 

Finding late-round rookie gems are fun and provide a sense of satisfaction to dynasty players when they hit. Everyone wants to believe they’re the Han Solo of fantasy football, shouting, “Never tell me the odds!” to the people who do this for a living.

Don’t scrounge for the outliers, play the percentages. Like it or not, believe in a prospect or not, listen to what the NFL tells you about a player by where they draft them. Draft capital is real, and it matters. Pump the brakes on spending a second or third round rookie pick on that player “you really like” who was just drafted in the fifth or sixth round. The long-term success of your dynasty team depends on it.

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