The daily fantasy sports site DRAFT has recently started offering season-long best ball leagues for the 2017 NFL season. In this piece I examine the early average draft position (ADP) data for these leagues and offer an ADP pivot play for each of the first 10 rounds.
Best Ball Leagues
Earlier this year I wrote about the best (non-DFS) seasonal league of all time, which combines the head-to-head and best ball formats.
In best ball, you draft your team — and that’s it, so it makes sense that DRAFT would venture into season-long games with this type of format. You compete against the entire field as you do in a DFS guaranteed prize pool, except the contest lasts for more than a day (or week). There’s absolutely no in-season management. You don’t have to review the waiver wire for free agents or worry about setting your lineup. Rosters lock for the season immediately after the draft, and the starting lineup is retroactively optimized each week so that the highest-scoring lineup you could’ve fielded is the one for which you get credit.
There are no trades — because who has time to deal with other people?
These draft-only leagues are as close to DFS as the seasonal format gets: You pick your team, you sweat for a period of time, and then it’s over.
DRAFT Best Ball Leagues
This is a quick overview of some of the DRAFT Best Ball rules:
- Weeks 1-16
- 18 players per roster
- Eight scoring positions per week – 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, and 1 RB/WR/TE
- 0.5 point-per-reception (PPR) scoring
In 10-team drafts, first place typically gets 4.5 times the entry fee; second and third, 2.7 and 1.8. In 12-team drafts, first, second, and third typically get 5.0, 3.0, and 1.8 times the entry fee; fourth gets the entry fee back. Of course, be sure to check contest rules for yourself at PlayDraft.com
Volatility Is Vital
In GPPs, we seek players with underappreciated odds of putting up big performances. Sometimes these are players who have scored well in our Upside Rating metric, which measures the percentage of past games in which a player (per our Plus/Minus metric) has exceeded his salary-based expectations by one-half of a standard deviation. Basically in GPPs we want volatile players with high ceilings relative to their acquisition costs. If they don’t hit their ceilings, it doesn’t matter how they perform, since anything less than Upside performances won’t enable a roster to finish high enough to cash.
Like GPPs, best ball leagues are driven by volatility. Since lineups are optimized each week, it’s better to have boom-or-bust players than steady producers — assuming that they have comparable point-per-game (PPG) averages and ADPs. It’s better to have players with eight week-winning and eight dud performances than 16 average outings. In the aggregate, the boom-or-bust players are likelier to combine to score more points on a weekly basis over the course of a season. Of course, if a steady producer has a low enough ADP, then he could be worth drafting anyway, just as he could be worth rostering in a GPP if he’s especially cheap.
In general, though, volatility is vital.
10 Round-by-Round ADP Pivot Plays
When you pivot away from a player in DFS, you do so believing your action will advantage you in some way. Maybe you think the player you’re pivoting to will score more points than the player you’re bypassing. Or maybe he has a higher floor, a better chance of reaching his salary-based expectations, or a lower salary that enables you to roster superior players at other positions.
In GPPs maybe you think your pivot play will have a lower ownership rate. (By the way, this season Pro subscribers will be able to review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels via our DFS Ownership Dashboard.)
In season-long leagues that don’t involve a salary cap, there are only two reasons to pivot away from one player and toward another:
- You think the pivot play is likelier to score more points.
- You think the pivot play is likelier to score points in a manner beneficial to the format.
With that in mind, here are 10 pivot plays for 12-team leagues in the DRAFT best ball format. The following ADP data (in parentheses) is as of Monday, June 26.
Round 1: RB Devonta Freeman (10.9) –> RB Melvin Gordon (11.1)
Devonta Freeman is great, but it’s easier said than done for new Falcons Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian — in his first year as an NFL play caller — to replicate the zone-blocking scheme of former OC Kyle Shanahan, especially since Sark (a former quarterback) has traditionally been more of a passing game guru than running game savant. Freeman was prolific in his two years in Shanahan’s offense, accumulating 3,175 yards and 27 touchdowns from scrimmage in 31 games — but it’s hard to say he was better than his teammate Tevin Coleman.
Although Freeman had more carries and targets, Coleman significantly cut into Freeman’s workload last season, turning 118 carries and 40 targets into 941 yards and 11 TDs in 13 games. Additionally, on a per-carry and per-target basis, Coleman was more efficient than Freeman over the last two years:
- Coleman: 4.4 yards per attempt (YPA), 8.5 yards per target (YPT)
- Freeman: 4.3 YPA, 6.4 YPT
With a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at five feet 11 inches and 207 pounds, Coleman is both faster and bigger than his teammate and enough of a threat to make Freeman a risky option in the first round.
Whereas Freeman averaged 14.2 attempts per game (APG) and 4.1 targets per game (TPG) last year, Melvin Gordon averaged 20.9 APG and 4.7 TPG for 19.5 half-PPR PPG in his first 12 games of the season before suffering season-ending hip and knee injuries in Week 14. With only the uninspiring Branden Oliver and unmentionable Kenneth Farrow, Andre Williams, and Kenjon Barner on the roster behind him, Gordon has almost no competition for carries on the Chargers.
With a career average of 3.7 YPA, Gordon might not be as talented as his hype suggests, but he’s a 75th percentile SPARQ score athlete with good size at six feet one inch. He’s a workhorse, and Freeman isn’t.
Right now the prop markets have Freeman and Gordon at +8,000 and +12,500 to win the 2017 NFL MVP Award. Of the two, I prefer Gordon. He’s perhaps the most important offensive player on his team. Freeman isn’t.
Round 2: RB Jordan Howard (14.4) –> RB Jay Ajayi (15.0)
He’s a Pro-Bowl runner coming off a 15-game rookie campaign in which he managed 250 carries and 50 targets, but Jordan Howard is unlikely to surpass 1,600 scrimmage yards again. Last season the Bears were 23rd in situation-neutral pace at 30.08 seconds per play (Football Outsiders) and tied for 29th with 17.4 PPG. It’s not likely that backup-caliber quarterback/skinny offensive lineman Mike Glennon and one-year wonder/rookie would-be savior Mitch Trubisky will improve the Bears offense.
Running a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at his pro day at six feet and 223 pounds, Howard was a collegiate big-bodied plodder with limited receiving skills in the mold of Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill, catching only 24 passes in his three years at Alabama-Birmingham and Indiana. That lack of pass-catching polish was evident last year as he caught a murderous 58.0 percent of his 50 targets, leading the position in drops with seven. With the Bears likely to struggle on offense and an above-average passing-down back in Benny Cunningham now on the roster, Howard is a risky option at the top of the second round.
Jay Ajayi isn’t without risk either — the underachieving Ryan Tannehill is somehow still the quarterback of the Dolphins, who were dead last in the NFL last year in pace — but the Dolphins were at least 17th with 22.7 PPG, and this offseason the coaches have mentioned on multiple occasions that Ajayi is ready to be used more as a runner and receiver.
Although some people have talked about Ajayi as if he’s incompetent at running routes and catching the ball, he caught 50 passes for 535 yards and four TDs in his final college season at Boise State. At six feet and 221 pounds, Ajayi is a workhorse with the ability to explode for big gains and games. You might be tempted to write off Ajayi’s 2016 production as the result of a few big performances — but only three other backs in NFL history have managed to have as many as three 200-yard rushing games in a season: Hall-of-Famers Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson and 10,000-yard rusher Tiki Barber.
Howard is +12,500 to win the NFL MVP; Ajayi is +15,000. Of the two, Ajayi seems infinitely preferable. Campbell and Simpson both won MVPs in the 1970s, and Barber finished 2005 fourth in MVP voting. Discount Ajayi at your peril.
Round 3: QB Tom Brady (27.0) –> QB Drew Brees (31.9)
Tom Brady might be the greatest quarterback in NFL history — and the No. 1 player in the NFL — but Drew Brees is the better fantasy producer. Brees has been with the Saints since 2006. In those 11 years, he’s led the NFL in passing yards seven times. Brady has started for the Patriots for 15 years (excluding his injury-shortened three-play 2008 campaign); he’s led the league in passing twice.
Since returning to health in 2009, Brady has been a rock star, averaging 24.5 half-PPR PPG in 124 games played with 36.9 pass attempts per game (PAPG) for 283.3 yards and 2.1 TDs. Of course, Brees has been even better across that same period, averaging 26.5 half-PPR PPG in 126 games with 40.5 PAPG for 316.3 yards and 2.4 TDs.
On top of that, Brees has one big factor in his favor: His home stadium is the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Coors Field of fantasy football, where he is at his best. His home/road splits have always been dramatic, but they’ve especially intensified over the last half-decade, as the Saints defense has been a bottom-five unit in scoring in four of the last five seasons. Forced into shootouts on the fast-paced ‘Mardi Grass’ synthetic turf surface, Brees has averaged 30.3 half-PPR PPG at home since 2012.
Just because he’ll be throwing passes to Brees’ former receiver in Brandin Cooks doesn’t mean that Brady is now the producer Brees is. Brees is the superior fantasy player, and he’s likely to have more week-winning performances.
Right now Brady is +400 to win MVP; Brees, +3,300. At those odds, I’ll take the guy who’s led the league in passing each of the last three seasons.
Round 4: RB Christian McCaffrey (37.5) –> RB Ty Montgomery (39.7)
People talk about Christian McCaffrey as if he’s a unique talent — but two years before he was a consensus All-American all-purpose player for Stanford known for his athleticism, return skills, and dual-threat ability as a runner and receiver . . .
. . . Ty Montgomery was a consensus All-American all-purpose player for Stanford known for his athleticism, return skills, and dual-threat ability as a runner and receiver.
As talented as he is, McCaffrey is in a situation that belies his top-10 draft status. First of all, he’s with a mobile quarterback in Cam Newton, who has 48 TDs rushing in his career and a penchant for running the ball instead of dumping it off to a running back whenever plays break down. Since entering the league in 2011, Newton has five of the 10 top seasons in quarterback rush attempts. Even though Newton has been in the league for only six seasons, no quarterback in the last 12 years has more rushing attempts than Newton’s 689. It’s not close to certain that Newton’s going to surrender carries — especially goal-line carries — to a rookie who weighs only 202 pounds.
The same could be said for Jonathan Stewart. Although Stew has been a mortal lock for each of the last five years to miss at least a few games with a lower-body injury, he’s still a 235-pound veteran with good athleticism and an average of 211.6 carries for 874 yards and six TDs per season over the last three years. Additionally, Stew is a capable receiver even though he hasn’t done much in the last five years: In Newton’s rookie year, he caught 77.0 percent of his 61 targets for 413 yards. There aren’t likely to be many targets for the Panthers running backs in the first place, and we shouldn’t assume that McCaffrey will earn most of Stewart’s targets from previous seasons.
There’s an underappreciated chance that McCaffrey’s usage this year as a runner, receiver, and goal-line back will be insufficient to warrant his ADP.
Montgomery, meanwhile, is the 221-pound lead back in a Packers offense that last year was fourth with 27.0 PPG. After Eddie Lacy‘s season-ending injury in Week 5, Montgomery — despite starting the season as a receiver — acted as the team’s lead back in the majority of the games in which appeared. Playing 11 games from Week 6 on, Montgomery had double-digit touches in seven of those contests, turning an average of 8.7 APG and 6.4 TPG into 95.9 yards, five receptions, and 0.4 TDs for 14.7 half-PPR PPG — and, again, he did that while transitioning to running back on the fly.
This year he’ll benefit from an offseason of positional training, and the Packers seem ready to let him roll with the job: Behind him on the depth chart are only fourth-round rookie Jamaal Williams, fifth-round rookie Aaron Jones, and seventh-round rookie Devante Mays. Williams and Jones have potential, but Montgomery is a big-bodied veteran with some NFL production on his record and top-five pass-catching ability at the position.
It will be hard for Montgomery to lose high-leverage opportunities to the rookies currently on his team.
Also . . . I really don’t mind Joe Mixon at 44.9. Shhhh.
Round 5: WR Emmanuel Sanders (57.8) –> WR Larry Fitzgerald (59.4)
I understand why Emmanuel Sanders has a higher ADP than Larry Fitzgerald. He’s younger, he’s faster, and he’s coming off three straight campaigns with at least 135 targets, 75 receptions, and 1,000 yards in each season. When Manny’s with a competent passer, he has top-10 positional upside.
That said, he’s not with a competent passer. He’s in a Broncos offense that will be
quarterbacked ‘quarterbacked’ by Trevor Siemian — a third-year seventh-round selection who completed only 59.5 percent of his passes in his first year as a starter — and Paxton Lynch, a second-year first-round selection who last year couldn’t beat out Siemian and (more importantly) made the world wonder why John Elway’s obsessed with abnormally tall brown-haired quarterbacks who leave college early, cost a lot of draft capital, and do little besides sit on the bench in the NFL.
There’s no reason to expect that Sanders’ situation will be better this year than it was in 2015 with Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler and last year with Manning/Osweiler v.2.0. Over the last two years Sanders has averaged 9.1 TPG for 5.1 receptions, 72.2 yards, 0.4 TDs, and 12.1 half-PPR PPG. That’s pretty close to what we can expect from him this year.
Fitz, however, is in a situation that isn’t terrible. After missing 10 games in 2014, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer finished second in MVP voting in 2015 with career-high marks in yards (4,671) and TDs (35) and league-high marks in adjusted yards per attempt (9.1) and Total Quarterback Rating (78.6). Naturally, Fitz returned to Pro-Bowl form that year, turning 145 targets into 109 receptions, 1,215 yards, and nine TDs.
In 2016, Palmer was bound to have negative regression — and he was brutal in the first half of the season — but he turned it around in the second half of the year, managing to finish ninth and tied for 10th in the league with 4,233 yards and 26 TDs passing despite missing one game. He didn’t look all that different from the quarterback who threw 4,274 yards and 24 TDs in 2013, his first year in Arizona., when Fitz had 954 yards and 10 TDs. In 2016, Fitz had 1,023 yards and led the league with 107 receptions. Even when Palmer isn’t playing his best, Fitz still produces.
Over the last two years Fitz has averaged 13.2 half-PPR PPG on the strength of 9.3 TPG for 6.8 receptions, 70.1 yards, and 0.5 TDs. Over the last four years, in the 53 games in which Palmer has appeared Fitz has averaged 12.7 half-PPR PPG on 8.8 TPG for 6.1 receptions, 67.9 yards, and 0.5 TDs. Fitz with Palmer is better than Manny with ‘not Palmer.’
As Palmer has missed 11 games in the last four years and is currently 37 years old, it’s possible that he could miss games this season. If that happens, that sucks for Fitz. At the same time, it’s always possible that Manny could decline in his age-30 season. Fitz has aged gracefully. Not all wide receivers do, especially those who are five feet 11 inches and 186 pounds.
Everything considered, when upside performances are desired it’s probably better to go with the big-bodied receiver who has scored double-digit TDs in five seasons over the small receiver who hasn’t hit that threshold once — especially when the big guy’s team last year was sixth in scoring and he was second in the league in targets within the 10-yard line.
The Quick Hitch
Round 6: RB Dalvin Cook (63.2) –> RB Mike Gillislee (66.1) – One of these guys is a rookie playing behind a Vikings offensive line that was 30th last year in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric. The other is a veteran with a league-high 5.7 YPA last year and the opportunity to replace the two-down grinder who led the league in 2016 with 18 TDs rushing in the high-scoring Patriots offense.
Round 7: WR Kelvin Benjamin (73.6) –> WR DeVante Parker (80.1) – K-Benjy is basically a tight end who lines up on the outside. He has a sad 51.7 percent career catch rate, and it’s possible that this year he could be out-targeted by both Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and rookie second-round wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who’s a dynamic Percy Harvin clone. Parker is an A.J. Green doppelganger with whom Tannehill has averaged 8.2 adjusted yards per attempt for the Dolphins on 120 targets. Newton to Benjy? 7.3.
Round 8: RB Bilal Powell (86.4) –> RB Frank Gore (87.0) – Powell is a medium-sized back on a team that was 30th last year in scoring and has no solid starter at quarterback. Even though Powell is a strong receiver, it’s far from certain he’ll displace veteran Matt Forte as the team’s lead back. Gore is a workhorse with pass-catching skills in an offense that was eighth in scoring. He’s not exciting, but it’s hard to turn your nose up at a guy who had 1,000 yards rushing last year and 12.33 half-PPR PPG, even if he is now 34 years old.
Round 9: TE Zach Ertz (98.0) –> TE Hunter Henry (104.4) – Ertz has never had more than four TDs in a season, and it’s possible that when LeGarrette Blount isn’t getting goal-line carries whatever TDs Carson Wentz accidentally throws will go to Alshon Jeffery, Jordan Matthews, Torrey Smith, and Darren Sproles. As a rookie, Henry scored eight TDs last year. Hall-of-Famer Mike Ditka, ball-spiker Rob Gronkowski, and Pro-Bowler Junior Miller are the only tight ends ever to score more TDs as first-year players.
Round 10: WR Corey Davis (110.3) –> WR Mike Wallace (111.8) – Drafted No. 5 overall, Davis was special in college, but rookie wide receivers from non-Power Five conferences tend to underperform, and even some receivers with great careers (like Calvin Johnson) have struggled as rookies when drafted with comparable picks. Last year the Titans were 28th in pass attempts, and it’s asking a lot of a rookie to steal significant targets from Eric Decker, Rishard Matthews, Delanie Walker, and DeMarco Murray. Before his lone season in Minnesota, when the Vikings were last in the league in pass attempts, Wallace averaged 11.3 half-PPR PPG. Last year, when the Ravens led the league in pass attempts, Wallace had a team-high 1,017 yards receiving — and now target hogs Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken, Dennis Pitta, and Kyle Juszczyk are gone. Wallace isn’t consistent — but in best ball that’s a virtue.