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.

(Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire)

 

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 begin. 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 the purposes of 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. There are later-round breakouts and surprises that 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 in 2019, 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. Players who scored many more touchdowns than this simple model would have expected were at risk of disappointing fantasy managers if their touchdown rates were to have fallen 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 who were 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 did not necessarily mean they would be a bust in 2020. It is entirely possible for players to 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 really need to worry about the potential for these players to bust.

In 2020, I wasn’t particularly worried about any of the wide receivers on this list, for example. While Adam Thielen scored over four more touchdowns than expected, Stefon Diggs being traded to the Bills opened up 94 targets in the Vikings’ offense. Though Thielen was obviously not going to absorb every single one of those targets, he entered the year as the undisputed number one option in that passing game (though, as we know, Justin Jefferson eventually had something to say about that).

Looking at the others on the list, Cooper Kupp and Kenny Golladay each ultimately had disappointing 2020 seasons, with touchdown regression (among other issues, like injuries and offensive efficiency) playing a part.

This list of running backs, at a glance, did contain some worrisome players. In 2019, Aaron Jones scored a touchdown for every 67.75 rushing yards, a rate just over double the league average from 2015-19. While talented, Jones still had Jamaal Williams stealing touches going in to 2020, and was on a Packers team that had ranked just below league average in total offense in 2019. However, this mark improved dramatically in 2020, along with the team scoring on an impressive 76.8% of their red zone visits. Jones managed to escape regression through offensive improvement and even greater team efficiency.

Derrick Henry was also rather lucky in the touchdown department in 2019. As an offense, the Titans blew out the rest of the league in red zone efficiency in 2019, scoring a touchdown on over 77% of their visits. For context, the Packers ranked second in 2019 at nearly 68%, and no other team besides the 2019 Titans had managed to crack 73.5% from 2009 to 2019. Of course, we now know that the Titans did it again, scoring on 74.2% of their red zone visits in 2020. The Titans and Packers both made history, and there is egg on my face.

It was exceedingly unlikely for both the Titans and Henry to match their remarkable rates of touchdown production going into 2020. Henry scored a touchdown in 2019 on every 96.25 rushing yards, compared to the league average of one touchdown on every 136 rushing yards. In 2020, that number fell slightly to a touchdown per 119.24 rushing yards, but it didn’t matter because Henry had 75 more carries in a truly historic season.

The Jones and Henry examples should illustrate that elite players in elite offenses can safely be projected to score a disproportionately high number of touchdowns. It’s players like Todd Gurley and Kenyan Drake, who build undeservedly positive public perceptions based on unsustainable touchdown production, that are often drafted too high. Changes in the offenses or in the roles of these non-elite players can bring them crashing down.

 

Red Flag #2: Changing Situations

 

We have already mentioned how changing situations at running back can exacerbate 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 2015-2019 being drafted inside the top 50 overall players, who were also on a new team at the beginning of the 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.

Another theory to explain this trend is that receivers who switch teams are often unwanted by their original team at market price. The original team may know something about a player the rest of the league (and fantasy community) does not, as was the case with Andre Johnson (accelerated aging), Terrelle Pryor (was only targeted due to a talent void in Cleveland), and Odell Beckham (still baffled by his career arc).

In 2020, this concern applied mostly to DeAndre Hopkins, as Stefon Diggs had an ADP outside these top few rounds. Hopkins managed to buck the trend, living up exactly to his preseason ADP of WR5, while Diggs of course demolished expectations. Despite these counterexamples, I would still err on the side of caution with team-switching wide receivers.

In Diggs’ case, the potential downside was baked in to his draft cost, something that could begin to happen more frequently as the public wises up to this trend. Curtis Samuel is a 2021 example of a receiver whose risk from switching teams is appropriately reflected in his ADP.

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 quarterback widens the range of outcomes for any player, increasing bust risk. Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Joe Mixon, Chris Godwin, and Mike Evans all fell into this category in 2019. Not all disappointed and a few were injured, but these are factors that are occasionally overlooked.

 

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 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.

To reiterate a final time, ADP must always be considered. The fantasy football public falls for these traps less and less every year, meaning many players who would appear to be bust candidates based on these criteria may actually be priced appropriately, with their risk “priced in.” I’d have a much bigger problem with Aaron Jones in 2021 if he cost a first round pick, but he doesn’t, so don’t sweat too much about his team’s unsustainable efficiency.

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