Fantasy 101: How to Spot Early-Round Busts

Ryan Heath explains the two red flags drafters often miss when trying to avoid early-round busts.

Avoiding Busts is a Key to Dominating Your League

 

Your goal in the first few rounds of a fantasy draft should not be to win your league but to avoid losing it. Drafting a player who does not live up to expectations early on can leave massive holes in your roster and cripple your fantasy team before the waiver-wire and trading activity even begins. If you want to be competitive, it is much more important to avoid drafting bad values than it is to hit on incredible ones. Luckily, there are a few things to look out for when identifying players that carry more risk than the average fantasy owner may realize.

For this analysis, “bust” will refer to a player that does not live up to his average draft position. In other words, they end up falling significantly short of their preseason projection, due to injury, underperformance, or otherwise. The other players drafted around them would have offered greater fantasy production at the same draft cost.

A player drafted as the RB5 is not a bust if he finishes as the RB7 since he probably still produced just as well or better than the players drafted near him. Some later-round breakouts and surprises vault into the top scorers every year, so this can naturally push players down a few slots. However, a player drafted as the RB5 who finishes as the RB25 likely was a bust, since you could have secured better production from the other players drafted right after him.

With all this in mind, there are two big red flags we can look for when attempting to identify potential early-round busts. Not all busts will meet these criteria, but these are the most common factors that the average drafter tends to overlook. All players have risk and every player has a price where the risk becomes worth it, but these two factors are often not fully “priced in,” making players that carry them ones to avoid at their ADPs.

 

Red Flag #1: Touchdown Regression

 

Touchdowns account for a significant portion of the fantasy points that players score. For example, in a PPR format, touchdowns accounted for 21.4% of Austin Ekeler’s fantasy points in 2019.

However, touchdown totals can swing wildly from year to year. Melvin Gordon was the leading rusher for the Chargers in both 2015 and 2016. In 2015, he scored zero touchdowns and finished outside the top-30 fantasy running backs. In 2016, he scored 12 total touchdowns and vaulted into the top tier at the position. Of course, his carries and yardage also went up, but not enough to entirely explain a 12-touchdown jump.

We have established both the importance and volatility of touchdowns, the next logical question to ask is “Well, what players got lucky and scored more touchdowns than they should have last year?” If we’re looking for potential busts, players who are valued highly due to unsustainable touchdown production are a good place to start. If a player scored many more touchdowns than an average player would have given the same amount of total yardage last year, there’s a good chance they’re being overvalued by the fantasy community.

I calculated the number of expected touchdowns that each of the top-15 RBs and WRs by early ADP should have scored last year, based on their yardage totals and league-wide touchdown rates over the last five years. I then compared that number to their actual number of touchdowns scored last season. Players who scored many more touchdowns than this simple model would have expected are at risk of disappointing fantasy managers this year if their touchdown rates fall back toward the historical averages.

Here are the top five luckiest running backs in the sample, along with the number of additional touchdowns they scored over the expectation:

 

Player TDs Scored Over Expected in 2019
Aaron Jones 7.94
Todd Gurley 6.37
Derrick Henry 5.39
Christian McCaffrey 2.21
Kenyan Drake (Arizona production only) 2.17

 

…and here are the top five luckiest wide receivers at risk for regression:

 

Player TDs Scored Over Expected in 2019
Adam Thielen 4.19
Kenny Golladay 3.11
Cooper Kupp 2.30
Tyreek Hill 1.30
Mike Evans 0.33

 

It is important to give these numbers some context. A player appearing on one of these lists does not necessarily mean they will be a bust in 2020. Players can maintain touchdown rates higher than the league average due to talent, scheme fit, high usage near the goal line, and overall efficient offenses. When these factors are not in place, or when they may not continue to be in place, we need to worry about the potential for these players to bust.

I’m not particularly worried about any of the wide receivers on this list, for example. While Adam Thielen scored over 4 more touchdowns than expected last year, Stefon Diggs being traded to the Bills opens up 94 targets in the Vikings’ offense. Though Thielen will not absorb every single one of those targets, he will be the undisputed number one option in that passing game, and could accordingly see a bump in targets and yardage that would offset some of the potential losses from touchdown regression. Also, Thielen was hurt for much of last year, so it’s not as if those extra touchdowns led to a monster season that’s inflating his ADP. Much the same logic goes for Cooper Kupp, who is now in a passing game without Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley.

While Kenny Golladay scored three more touchdowns than expected last year, he was also without starting QB Matthew Stafford for the home stretch of the season and remains the top Red Zone threat on the Lions offense due to his superior size and athleticism. He is not a lock to score double-digit touchdowns again, but his role in the offense is secure. While not exactly a screaming value, he is a fine pick in the third round.

This list of running backs, on the other hand, does contain some worrisome players. Aaron Jones scored a touchdown for every 67.75 rushing yards, a rate just over double the league average from the last five years. While talented, Jones still has Jamaal Williams stealing touches in the backfield and is on a Packers team that ranked just below league average in total offense last year. Jones is now also joined by second-round NFL Draft pick A.J. Dillon, a bigger back who the Packers may begin deploying in the red zone. These factors in combination with Jones’ incredible touchdown luck last year could be setting him up to disappoint fantasy gamers who draft him in the second round.

Similarly, Derrick Henry was also rather lucky in the touchdown department last season. The Titans also added a running back in the draft, third-round pick Darrynton Evans. As an offense, the Titans blew out the rest of the league in Red Zone efficiency last season, scoring a touchdown on over 77% of their visits. For context, the Packers ranked second last year at nearly 68%, and no other team besides the 2019 Titans have managed to crack 73.5% over the last 10 seasons. It is exceedingly unlikely for both the Titans and Henry to match their remarkable rates of touchdown production going into this year. Henry scored a touchdown last year on every 96.25 rushing yards, compared to the league average of one touchdown on every 136 rushing yards.

By analyzing expected touchdowns using another context with regards to these players and offenses, we can identify players who carry inflated public perceptions, making it more likely for them to bust at their respective ADPs. While they are not guaranteed to regress, this type of analysis is not a great way to build projections for the coming season. However, it can give us a more unbiased window into what is driving the draft prices of these players and let us act accordingly.

 

Red Flag #2: Changing Situations

 

We have already discussed how changing situations at running back can contribute to touchdown regression. What about a change of scenery when considered on its own, though? Are players on new teams more likely to bust?

The sample size of course cannot be nearly as large or robust here, but I analyzed the ADPs and end-of-season finishes of every wide receiver from the last five years being drafted inside the top 50 overall players that were on a new team at the beginning of a season. Here were the results:

 

Player Positional ADP Positional Finish (PPR Scoring) Difference
Odell Beckham (2019) WR5 WR25 -20
Antonio Brown (2019) WR7 WR150 -143
Jarvis Landry (2018) WR18 WR18 0
Brandin Cooks (2018) WR19 WR13 +6
Brandin Cooks (2017) WR9 WR15 -6
Terrelle Pryor (2017) WR16 WR105 -89
Alshon Jeffery (2017) WR17 WR20 -3
Andre Johnson (2015) WR18 WR58 -40
Jeremy Maclin (2015) WR19 WR15 +4

 

Right away, we can see that most of these results aren’t pretty. There are plenty of big names and talented receivers here that significantly underperformed their ADPs after moving to a new team. It seems that the public often runs out to the best-case scenario for these top players, as they grab headlines when making waves in free agency. Only two of the nine outperformed their ADP after changing teams, and these players on average finished 32 spots lower in the positional ranks than where they were drafted.

I didn’t include players who were traded mid-season, like 2018 Amari Cooper, since they were mostly drafted with the expectation they would be on their original team. It’s arguable whether Antonio Brown ought to be included, since he was immediately released by the Raiders and signed by the Patriots after many had drafted, along with the insanity of his entire situation. Without Brown included, the average finish was 18.5 positional slots lower than ADP.

This isn’t necessarily a hard-and-fast rule that will always apply, but when there are other players available that have not changed teams, already have playbook knowledge, and¬†have established¬†chemistry with their quarterbacks, it seems riskier to select the guys playing in new venues. Recent history seems to back up this way of thinking.

This year, this concern mostly applies to DeAndre Hopkins. With an ADP of WR3 often seeing him selected near the end of the first round or start of the second, Hopkins represents a great risk to fantasy drafters. Though supremely talented, Hopkins will be hard-pressed to once again maintain his typical gargantuan target share of over 30%, given that he must now build trust and timing with his new quarterback. He has ranked outside the top-50 in target separation in each of the past two years, suggesting his game relies heavily on his quarterback trusting him to make contested catches closer to defensive backs. Indeed, Hopkins has averaged nearly 35 contested targets over the last two seasons. He won’t necessarily be useless, but the team-switch gives him a lot of downside at a position where others have already struggled to separate themselves into an elite tier. The Odell Beckham Jr. experience last year should make drafters wary of selecting Hopkins within the first two rounds.

On a more general note, drafters should also take into account any quarterback changes that occur on the teams of top players. Even if these appear to be upgrades or side-grades, a new signal-caller widens the range of outcomes for any player, increasing bust risk. Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Joe Mixon, Chris Godwin, and Mike Evans all fall into this category in the first two rounds of ADP. You can close your eyes and imagine a scenario in which each of them underperforms expectations due to their new quarterbacks; Teddy Bridgewater and Tyrod Taylor could utilize their respective satellite backs less than their predecessors, rookie Joe Burrow could flop spectacularly and make the Cincinnati offense even more inhospitable, and Tom Brady could choose one of his all-pro receivers as his favorite and begin ignoring the other one. These scenarios aren’t all necessarily likely to happen, but it’s important to take in all of the information affecting a player’s situation.

 

Final Thoughts

 

If you can keep these two red flags in mind, you will have a much greater chance of avoiding the landmines scattered around the first few rounds of your draft. The processes I’ve outlined here can be used to argue against any player and can be applied year after year. This approach will leave you free to chase upside in the later rounds, rather than trying to dig yourself out of the holes left in your roster from risky picks early on.

 

 

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

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