Is NFL Draft Round Indicative of Fantasy Football Production for Wide Receivers?
The 2015 NFL Draft has come and gone. It featured 32 organizations that selected various players in the league's most hyped event of the offseason. If your favorite NFL team nails some of their draft picks and adds talent at good prices, they are one step closer to success in the future.
Each selection in the draft is essentially an investment -- and just like anything you invest in -- you can make reasonable long-term predictions for this commodity. But the market can't be fully predicted, and teams don't always take the best player available. Individual teams will always have certain needs, traits, and scheme fits they're looking for in a player. Still, the draft works as a relatively efficient market and no team has proven they can consistently perform (i.e. draft players) better than the league-wide average.
Without knowing it, these theories are easily translatable to drafting skill-position players in fantasy football, most notably wide receivers. If the NFL draft is an efficient market -- wouldn't it stand to reason we can make some reasonable predictions about how players will perform in relation to their draft slot?
We can logically operate under the theory that draft position is at least somewhat indicative of talent level. Or, the earlier a wide receiver is selected in the draft, the higher his talent and potential is relative to the receivers left on the board. Can this be tested? If so, what does all of this mean for your fantasy football team and why does it matter? And wasn't Antonio Brown drafted in the sixth round?
Testing the Efficient Market Theory
To get a baseline hypothesis for wide receivers' career fantasy production, we'll use Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value metric.
In short, Approximate Value (AV) is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a wide receiver from any year. Essentially, weights are put on player performance to derive a single number to sum a player's career. To be clear: AV is not the be-all-end-all in player worth or ability. It still serves as an effective proxy for large sample-size comparative tests, something we're about to find out.
To derive a useful sample, I went back and looked at careers of players who were drafted post-2000 and came up with 234 individual wide receivers. To qualify, a receiver must have a career AV of 2 or more, played in more than 16 career games, and averaged at least 1 reception per game.
The graph below shows the median career fantasy points per game scored of the 234 receiver sample and is grouped by the individual player's draft round. For example, this study includes careers of players who were selected across the draft board like Dez Bryant (drafted in the first round and averaging 16.8 career fantasy points per game) and Marques Colston (drafted in the seventh round and averaging 15.0 career fantasy points per game).
All fantasy scoring referenced is points per reception (PPR).
It seems as though the NFL actually is a fairly efficient market for wide receivers. Note that -- except in Round 5 -- every data point has a downward trend in relation to draft capital spent.
This means that the earlier a wide receiver is selected in their draft, the more fantasy points he is likely to score throughout his career.
To further prove the above graph's overall point, the table below has the data's r-squared and correlation values. R-squared values range from 0-100% and are a measure of how close data is to a regression (trend) line. A score of 0.80 or higher indicates a fairly strong fit. Correlation is simply the relationship between two data sets -- draft round and median per-game fantasy points -- and a score of 1 is a perfectly positive correlation while -1 indicates a perfectly negative correlation.
|Med. FPs/Gm & Draft Round||0.80 (80%)||-0.90|
These statistics give us a favorable explanation of the efficient market theory and its link to scoring fantasy points. The relationship between median fantasy points per game scored and draft round is a rather strong -0.90, demonstrating there is a negative relationship between fantasy points and descending draft round. Or, as draft selection gets higher (i.e. further from first overall), median fantasy points per game gets lower.
So, what does all of this mean and how can you use this information as a guideline to rack-up fantasy points?
Follow The Lead
Simply put, the NFL actually does a very good job appropriately valuing wide receivers in the draft over a large sample. In turn, this easily means that the better players go earlier in the draft. This obviously makes a ton of logical sense.
As a matter of fact, since 2000, 57 wide receivers have averaged 10 or more fantasy points per game (low-"WR4" numbers) over the course of their careers. Of those 57 receivers, exactly 70% of them were drafted in the first or second round in their corresponding NFL draft. Just 11% were drafted in the sixth or seventh round.
Remember the Antonio Brown example? Wide receivers drafted in the 6th and 7th rounds already face astronomical odds to even make the team, let alone earn snaps and contribute to fantasy teams. This means when a player like Brown, or the aforementioned Marques Colston, and the Patriots' Julian Edelman are drafted late and become viable weekly fantasy studs they are complete exceptions to the efficient market rule.
Does this mean that you should always select wide receivers that were drafted in the first or second round of the NFL draft? Of course not. But, odds are if they are selected earlier, then they will score more fantasy points in their career.
In theory, Amari Cooper and Kevin White's (first round picks in the 2015 draft) odds of becoming consistent fantasy scorers are much better than Darren Waller and Tre McBride's (sixth and seventh round picks).
Remember though, the NFL can and will get it wrong. Players selected in the first round will "bust" and not live up to their draft capital. Likewise -- although it is fairly rare -- organizations will "miss" on receivers meaning they subsequently slip in the draft too far and should've been drafted earlier.
Still, the NFL puts a premium on draft selection and it correlates well with fantasy points. That matters to fantasy owners.
Just keep in mind the next time that you take the "upside" wide receiver who was selected 225th overall in his relative NFL draft in your re-draft, keeper, or dynasty fantasy drafts -- the odds are supremely stacked against that player.