One of the biggest advantages in fantasy football is being able to recognize the NFL controls all the chess pieces. Once that’s accepted, there’s a lot of information that can be mined.
When the regular season comes to a close, there’s always an urge to determine new trends and ideas based on what happened in that most recent season. For prospect purposes, this is an enormous issue, and a big reason why these probability charts came about. It’s essential to recognize the NFL is a consistent system, and the most successful players are consistently coming from the same buckets in the draft. A few outliers here and there are not going to average out the hundreds of prospects that came before them.
There’s a large amount of variables that make where a player gets drafted an incredible indicator of future NFL success, and a few of them aren’t talent related. A portion of it is the teams, general managers and organizations want/need to be right. A portion of it is lack of opportunity for late round picks. However, the overwhelming chunk of the pie is that the NFL gets it right most of the time. Let’s say that again with feeling! THE NFL GETS IT RIGHT MOST OF THE TIME.
Even before accounting for players that ‘bust’ because of injuries and off-field issues, the NFL is incredibly efficient. With that information accounted for, on a macro scale, it would be very hard to find a more efficient way of evaluating future success as an outsider. The reality of the situation is the NFL has A LOT of people working FULL TIME to figure these prospects out, and those folks have access to A LOT of information the public does not. All decision-makers may not be great, but over 32 teams, the good FAR outweigh the bad.
There’s a lot of debate over organizations and their competence as a whole. When it comes to free agency, salary cap management, trades and head coach signings, there’s credence to the ideas that these franchises are being led astray. For NFL draft purposes that is not the case.
Running back (RB) and wide receiver (WR) will be the only positions that are reviewed today, but based on initial research of other positions, the results are sticky across ALL positions. If there’s one thing to learn from this piece, it’s that the NFL draft is an efficient beast, and some of the base information it provides is the most valuable for fantasy football. It’s also incredibly underutilized in player evaluation across all formats.
That’s enough talking, let’s take a look at the updated charts for 2018.
What Are Positional Probability Charts? Why Is This Information Important?
Positional probability charts use statistical thresholds to determine how successful players have been, separated by NFL draft round. Separating players by where they went in the NFL draft is a simple way to create buckets for evaluation. While there’s clearly a ton of context with each prospect, and a huge variance in what they bring to the table on the field, taking a step back and seeing the success rates based on round can be eye-opening.
I’ve tested out other thresholds as well, but these ended up making the most sense. If pushing the line higher, the success rates become low for all rounds. If pushing the line lower, it’s a jumbled mess. Career yard thresholds was another way of measurement that got consideration. It worked in a similar fashion to single season totals, but with little-to-no difference, a lane had to be picked. Ultimately defining if a player was successful or not is a tough game, so there’s always going to be an abstract feel
(ProFootballReference.com is an incredible resource, and if ya’ll want to fool around with the season finder, it’s waiting for you!)
For each round, all players that reached each success marker were totaled up and divided by the total amount of players drafted in that round. The number in each color coded box represents the percentage of players in that round that reached the specified number of seasons hitting the threshold.
It can be difficult to shift to viewing players as a an odds investment, but when I first saw these, it made things much easier to wrap my head around. There’s probably a general idea that the earlier a player gets drafted, the higher the likelihood of success. But, considering how stark the difference is, there isn’t enough emphasis on how significant it is. Outliers are outliers, and while these sample sizes aren’t big, a single player succeeding or failing in a draft round only makes a 2.1 percent difference at a maximum.
While I call this ‘probability’, it’s not quite like a poker hand. Obviously, this is an ever growing mass of data , and players are constantly succeeding and failing within certain rounds. What’s important to recognize here is that these percentages were created out of hundreds of prospects over 19 drafts, and it’s remained stable over these two decades. In terms of differences from 2017 to 2018, no percentage changed more than 3.0 percent.
Total Career Seasons with 1,000+ Yards From Scrimmage
- 1st round RBs have been four times more likely (80.9%) to have one 1,000+ YFS season than a 4th round RB (18.5%)
- 1st round RBs have had a slightly higher chance of having six 1,000+ YFS seasons (14.9%) than a 5th round RB has had of having one (14.3%)
- Frank Gore is an alien regardless of what round he was selected in (3rd)
Lamar Miller (4th Round), Texans - Miller just finished off his fifth season with 1,000+ YFS. He’s the only 4th rounder to have more than four seasons (since 2000)
Chris Carson (7th Round), Seahawks - Carson joins just four other RBs drafted in round seven to have a season with 1,000+ YFS
Jordan Howard (5th Round), Bears - Howard finished off his third season with 1,000+ YFS in 2018. No 5th round pick has had more than three (since 2000). It will be very interesting how the Bears handle him moving forward
Matt Breida (undrafted), 49ers and Phillip Lindsay (undrafted), Broncos - Breida and Lindsay join 22 other RBs who have achieved a 1,000+ YFS season as an undrafted player. It was quite a year for both, and skill level will never be in question. If they can stay on the field or not is another matter.
Tarik Cohen (4th), Bears, James White (4th), Patriots and Marlon Mack (4th), Colts - It’s tough to tell what any of these roles will look like moving forward, but this is certainly a positive for the 4th round. Before this year, just 12 4th round RBs had a 1,000+ YFS season.
2018 was a standard season as far as draft position was concerned. There were a few outliers hovering around the top 20 in yards from scrimmage, but overall, the top was very draft pedigree heavy. Each of the top nine RBs in yards from scrimmage were drafted in the top three rounds of the NFL draft (Followed by Chris Carson and Phillip Lindsay at 10 and 11). In terms of overall composition, 15 of the 22 RBs to have 1,000+ YFS were drafted in the top three rounds (68.1%), and 10 were selected in the top two rounds (45.5%).
Considering the immense number of high-pedigree RB prospects that came into the NFL over the last four seasons, it seems reasonable to expect the top to look similar for the next couple of seasons.
Total Career Seasons with 800+ Receiving Yards
- 1st round WRs have had a slightly higher likelihood (10.7%) of having seven 800+ REC YD seasons than a fifth round has had of having one (10.0%)
- 3rd round WRs have been more than twice as likely (28.1%) to record a 800+ REC YD season than a 4th round WR (12.9%)
- Antonio Brown (6th round) is the only WR drafted beyond the 4th round to have seven seasons with 800+ REC YDs
- Stefon Diggs and Marvin Jones are the only 5th round WRs to have three seasons with 800+ REC YDs since 2000.
Adam Thielen (Undrafted), Vikings - Thielen has become one of the best undrafted free agents of all-time after 2018. Thielen joins former Broncos Rod Smith and former Patriot Wes Welker as the only undrafted wide receivers to have two or more seasons with 1200+ REC YDs. While it was initially unlikely for Thielen to sustain himself, now that there’s a solid samples size, it’s tough to associate him with his initial UDFA bucket.
Tyreek Hill (5th Round), Chiefs - Hill has put together his second straight season with 1,100+ REC YDs. Hill has turned himself into one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and barring a major injury or off-field issues, should be able to help boost what has been a brutal round for wide receivers over the last two decades.
Julian Edelman (7th Round), Patriots - Edelman now has four seasons with 800+ REC YDs. Edelman joins Marques Colston, Donald Driver and T.J. Housmanzadeh as other 7th round WRs to have accomplished that.
2018 was incredibly top heavy with outliers. Tyreek Hill, Adam Thielen, and Antonio Brown were all in the top ten in receiving yards, and their teams treated them as featured NFL weapons. Despite that, 2018 was one of the most draft pedigree heavy seasons ever. 23 of the 29 (79.3%) WRs to have above 800 receiving yards were drafted in the top three rounds of the NFL draft, and 16 (55.2%) were drafted in the top two rounds. That’s a significant amount, and the highest percentage of 800+ receiving yards season over the last five seasons.
While this information is straightforward, the most Important part would be how to apply it to fantasy football moving forward. If we KNOW NFL draft pick success stabilizes over time, why wouldn’t we be using that information for dynasty, best ball and even season-long research?
Think of this type of information as similar to putting the bumpers up in bowling. Fantasy football should be about fun when involving player evaluation, but also, being “right” is part of the fun. Increased awareness in what expectations are for players selected in specific rounds can give great guidance on which players to attract yourself to.
My general mantra since applying this research to my dynasty and season-long leagues has been “bias myself to the right players." There’s tons of opportunity for creativity and selecting favorites, but if you’re constantly picking out of the top three round bucket, you’re going to be right MUCH more often than someone who isn't as refined.
In terms of dynasty leagues, I did two start-ups last offseason. Through 20 rounds in both drafts, there were ZERO players drafted outside the top three rounds of the NFL draft on either team. There will consistently be late round outliers — most of them sustaining themselves for one to three seasons (check charts). If those players are available for cheap or on the waiver wire, go hog wild. But when it comes down to sustainable assets, the backbone of winning dynasty teams will always be high pedigree assets.
Russell Clay joined FantasyGuru.com as a contributor in August 2018. He prides himself on being a versatile fantasy writer who’s able to provide strong analysis on a wide array of topics.