What Worked in Fantasy Football in 2020
What Worked In Fantasy Football In 2020
Despite playing the season amidst a global pandemic, mostly without fans and with constant COVID interruptions, the 2020 NFL season has been a particularly enjoyable one. Our given strategy that we outlined at the beginning of the year (#ModifiedZeroRB) was very successful, given the total lack of success for middle-round RBs and just how incredible the scorers at WR have been. What is more interesting to me than just acknowledging that the GTO strategy we all knew was great works in practice is seeing what we can learn from the 2020 season and applying it to our 2021 drafts, our future dynasty leagues, and our best ball strategy for next season. Obviously, 2021 is not going to play out as perfectly for ZeroRB teams as 2020 did for many reasons. Small sample, RBs missing games due to pandemics, Leonard Fournette not being drafted as a starter, and on and on.
Middle-Round Quarterback Is Here To Stay
It was pretty freely conjectured in 2020 that we would not be able to get by with mobile-only quarterbacks in fantasy football in 2020, and that is looking to be mostly true. Of the top 10 QBs in fantasy this season (Kyler, Mahomes, Josh Allen, Rodgers, Russell Wilson, DeShaun Watson, Ryan Tannehill, Lamar, Herbert, Tom Brady) only Brady has not contributed over 25 points with his legs, and he still has three rushing touchdowns. The “value-based” gap between the top-end of quarterback and the bottom end has actually widened to the point that just streaming the position is no longer game theory optimal. Of course, we have had great stand-in QBs this year like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jalen Hurts, Derek Carr, Cam Newton, and Joe Burrow, but even if you streamed the perfect guy every week, you would still likely be giving up points to Kyler/Allen/Mahomes/etc. In 2019, only Lamar Jackson averaged over 22.9 fantasy points per game with 27.99. In 2020, there are seven quarterbacks, including the injured Dak Prescott, to average more than 23 standard fantasy points per game. Jalen Hurts would very likely join that group if he had been starting for the entire season.
A huge distinction to make here is that even Kyler and Josh Allen’s record-breaking seasons don’t make them worth second or third-round picks next year. Where the window of strategy is shifting is between waiting until extremely late for quarterbacks and moving the target into the middle round. Some of the best drafts this season, teams sitting in first place and ready to compete for championships, took their QBs in the 6th/7th/8th round of drafts. Using the Rotoviz Best Ball Win Rates tool, it shows us that Josh Allen (RD9), Russell Wilson (RD6), and Justin Herbert are the highest win rate QBs in BestBall10s. Herbert shows us the lesson we should be learning, really. Targeting QBs with good weapons and mobility who are being undervalued by the market for whatever reason is where we should steer our sights.
My best guess is that Jalen Hurts ends up in this range next season and will likely be a centerpiece of our drafting strategy. If Dak Prescott holds at a sixth or seventh-round ADP due to injury concerns, we will be buying him in bulk as well. It is possible that there is a Lamar Jackson discount as well, particularly if Baltimore struggles in the playoffs or just straight up doesn’t make it to the playoffs. Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Josh Allen, and Kyler are going to be priced out of our range as I think it is fairly possible all four of them going in the first four rounds of competitive drafts. What we should be doing, and it feels almost trite to type this out, is looking for players who fit the archetype of adding rushing and passing upside. Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields are all rookies next year who will have some rushing production and, depending on the landing spot, passing upside as well. Daniel Jones never took off this year, but if he ever limited turnovers, he would have rushing production to add to whatever passing he is able to accomplish.
The RB Dead Zone Is As Dead As Ever
Well, 2020 was the worst year ever for the running back dead zone. Ben Gretch coined this term back in 2019, and it was a huge part of my analysis for the 2020 offseason. Staying away from Le’Veon Bell, Leonard Fournette, David Johnson, and Todd Gurley was basically enough to ensure a profitable 2020 draft season. What follows is a screengrab of 2020 FFPC Main Event ADP from August in the Main Event, which I consider to be basically the best and sharpest ADP available (with data from fantasymojo.com).
Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Kareem Hunt, Ronald Jones, David Montgomery, and D’Andre Swift all had stretches of usefulness. In particular, DJ and Montgomery saved their best for the fantasy football playoffs and, for that reason, are candidates to be over-drafted next season. Bell, Fournette, Melvin Gordon, Akers, Mostert, and Singletary were team killers for various reasons. I think the obvious criticism to this analysis is “but RB X got injured, it isn’t fair!” which is basically the point. RBs are more likely than WRs to get injured (though WRs get banged up as well), but more importantly, for 2020, COVID tests were much more likely to give us starting RBs than starting WRs.
More damning is the lack of the mid-round RBs in the top-24 of 2020 RB scoring.
Montgomery, Taylor, Hunt, Carson, MG3, Swift, and Rojo are the representatives from the dead zone here. It is true for the most part that every single year, there will be SOME running backs drafted from round three-seven who end up in the top-24 in scoring. However, thinking about how likely it is that someone like Hunt who really only had five weeks of usefulness or Carson who did all his scoring in the first month of the season, we can still feel relatively confident that these are not rulebreakers. In general, you were much better off taking WRs in these rounds and taking shots on RBs like Nyheim Hines, Edmonds, Gibson, McKissic, etc in the later rounds. When it is is stated like that, it seems obvious. “Well, duh, take the RBs late who will score points!” but the larger point is that there will ALWAYS be Zero RB breakouts. Not every season has a James Robinson, but every season has a JD McKissic or a Chase Edmonds.
This is basically the skeleton key to drafting in fantasy football now. Avoid the walking dead at RB and buy as many lotto scratchers in the later rounds as possible.
Tight Ends Do Not Exist
If you didn’t draft Travis Kelce or Darren Waller at tight end this year, you basically didn’t have a good tight end in fantasy football. Our friend from Yahoo! fantasy sports drafted the perfect tweet about Kelce.
Fun facts about Travis Kelce:
* He outscored the TE2 by 57.4 points in half-PPR;
* He scored twice as many points as the TE6;
* He’d be the WR3, behind only Adams and Hill;
* He outscored all but three RBs (Kamara, Cook, Henry);
* Delivered 80 yards &/or a TD in 13 of 15 games.
— Andy Behrens (@andybehrens) December 28, 2020
There is a pretty solid argument to make that Kelce was the most valuable player in fantasy football this year. You weren’t forced to spend any waiver dollars on TE if you drafted Kelce; you likely missed some of the back-end first-round busts (Michael Thomas, Joe Mixon, Miles Sanders); obviously, the number of points that he scored spoke for themselves. What I find more interesting is: what do we do with TEs moving forward? Only six tight ends topped 160 PPR points through week 16, meaning that only six tight ends scored more than 10 PPR points per game and didn’t get hurt. Kittle, Gesicki, Fant, Goedert, and Jonnu Smith were all over 10 PPR fantasy points per game but missed time via injury and, in the case of Fant and Gesicki, had month-long stretches where they were just useless. So what is the lesson to learn here?
It is only one year of data, and there are younger tight ends who could take on larger roles on their teams next season or get QB changes in a positive direction, but I think the answer is most likely: as tight ends are being targeted less, it is worse and worse to take them in the mid-rounds. This is basic human psyche stuff; our brains see the lack of a healthy middle distribution of TE PPR points, and we fill those gaps in with a cadre of “high-upside” young tight ends who haven’t let us down yet. This caused players like Blake Jarwin, Tyler Higbee, Irv Smith Jr., and other guys to be drafted far higher than they should have been just based on their projections. Some of that is positional scarcity, and obviously, finding a Darren Waller season makes taking stabs on players with undefined ceilings can be part of an optimal strategy, but something I am going to try my best retains during the 2021 draft season — is that the mid-tier of tight ends really do not provide a competitive advantage over streaming at the position.
Draft More Wide Receivers
Wide receivers dominated fantasy scoring in 2020. Not only did established vets contribute at above-expected rates, but rookie WRs had their best season ever. Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Brandon Aiyuk, and Tee Higgins all finished in the top-30 of fantasy points per game. Chase Claypool went on a month stretch of being a top-12 fantasy WR before being sidelined mysteriously for James Washington. One of my favorite tools to use in-season and in preparing for drafts is the Rotoviz Weekly Stat Explorer.
The three dominant fantasy RBs (Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, and Derrick Henry) absolutely crushed this season in both expected fantasy points and fantasy points over expectation. The overwhelming majority of players in the top-50 of expected fantasy points were wide receivers, however. Part of this is simply because targets are just worth so much more than carries in terms of points expected. The larger truth is that wide receivers just score more fantasy points than the average running back, especially when factoring in average draft position.
I don’t actually even think it is controversial at this point to state that WRs, on average, score more points than RBs. The reason why people draft mediocre RBs so early compared to elite wide receivers is that they just want the RB points. They want the safety of the #GuranteedTouches, which are obviously a myth. We want points, not just touches.
The way that this presents itself for the forward-thinking fantasy football strategist is that even the new, shiny toys at RB (Dobbins, Swift, Jonathan Taylor, Akers in 2020) are somewhat bad bets, which truly pains me to say. All of the highly drafted rookie RBs had stretches where they were startable, but that was also true for Boston Scott, Wayne Gallman, and Jerick McKinnon. Maybe the problem is viewing things as endpoints when fantasy football is not an endpoint game. While there is no doubt that there are veins of WR production that are similar (Travis Fulgham is a prime example of this from 2020), it is easier to identify RB starts in-season because of the binary nature of the position. Wide receivers can have multiple startable performances in a row while never being ranked inside the top-30 PPR WRs, but that is really unlikely at RB because RB performance is more closely linked to total touches and playing time. You would never start Kerryon Johnson with D’Andre Swift active, but he is a fine desperation start with Swift out, whereas we were literally never starting Quintez Cephus or Marvin Hall with Kenny Golladay out.
So what do we do holistically with all of this information? We draft running backs in the first round (for the most part), hammer wide receivers for the vast majority of the middle rounds while focusing on highly-drafted rookie wide receivers whose ceilings are not priced in, and accumulate as many handcuffs and/or ambiguous backfield RBs as possible per team.