Is Drafting Youth Key to Fantasy Football Success?

What should you do in the middle rounds of your draft? Select a veteran or take a chance on a young player?

I have no hesitation in saying that Toy Story is one of the greatest stories ever told. Call me simple-minded, but the folks at Pixar used remnants of my childhood to make me laugh, reminisce and even cry a bit throughout their first animated feature. You all remember the story, right?

The action centered on the actions of the toys that belonged to a young boy, Andy. Andy’s favorite toy doll, Woody, is quickly disregarded in favor of the new, shiny, versatile Buzz Lightyear doll that Andy receives for his birthday, relegating poor Woody from his rightful place on the bed to the lowly toy box in the corner. The Toy Story series captures our human fascination with the new, often at the expense of the once cherished, the now old, and the soon-to-be obsolete.

And what’s interesting is that fantasy owners are really no different than Andy.

Each year, an incoming class of rookies captures our attention with optimism and the dream of what is possible, and budding stars are defined as "sleepers" worth reaching for in drafts. Cordarrelle Patterson is a weapon unlike anything the NFL has ever seen, and Odell Beckham Jr. has the talent to dominate at his position. Sure, we get it wrong more than we get it right. But when we get it right, we have unearthed a gem that promises fantasy glory due to our unbelievable foresight and scouting ability.

The appeal of the young is especially true when faced with a mid-round draft decision. Do I take Roddy White or Allen Robinson? Brandon Marshall or Martavis Bryant? The oft-injured Jonathan Stewart or the young and invincible T.J. Yeldon or Tevin Coleman?

Like Andy in the original Toy Story, instinct often tells us to disregard the old and boring in favor of the new and intriguing. But is that line of thinking justifiable?

Inside the Lab

My research was conducted by looking at the last three NFL seasons and analyzing average draft position (ADP) based on age and final scoring result in terms of fantasy points. The goal was to see if there was a correlation between age and fantasy viability and if investing in youth over experience is a worthwhile strategy for fantasy owners to at least consider.

I only examined players selected between picks 48 and 160, as players selected before that point are often considered “stars” already at their positions.

Players with five or fewer years of NFL experience were designated to be youthful. Players with six or more NFL seasons were designated as the veteran group.

Analyzing the Data

It was quickly evident that, like a fine wine or a Parmesan cheese, quarterbacks and tight ends often age very well.

Players such as Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, and pretty much every quarterback continue to excel as they age. And that isn’t to surprising, given that elite athletic ability isn’t nearly as necessary for success at those positions.

At the tight end position especially, youth is not an asset. It often takes players several years to develop at that position, and finding a top-10 player in the mid-to-late rounds of a fantasy draft is rarely done by drafting a younger player.

In 2014, only one young player cracked the top 12 after being drafted after the fifth round (Travis Kelce). Conversely, five older players drafted in that same range managed top-11 finishes. This remained true in both 2012 and 2013, with only Jordan Cameron (2013), Greg Olsen (2012) and Jermaine Gresham (2012) breaking into the top 10 as young players during those years.

At the quarterback position, age is not a precursor to success, both based on youth or experience. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson can have tremendous success as young players, while Brady, Brees and Manning continue to excel far into their 30s.

But what about the receivers and running backs, the two positions seemingly dependent on elite athleticism?

In 2014, just three older players drafted in the mid-to-late rounds broke into the top 20 at their position, and none made it into the top 15. However, the other nine mid-to-late rounders that populated the top 15 were young players. In total, 13 young players made it into the top 20 at their position, while only three older players managed that feat.

NamePositionNFL ExperienceADP 2014Position Ranking
Lamar MillerRB2809
Jeremy MaclinWR5679
Jeremy HillRB010310
Mike EvansWR010910
T.Y. HiltonWR26112
Golden TateWR47713
Joique BellRB35314
DeAndre HopkinsWR112115
Mark IngramRB39815
Frank GoreRB94816
Kelvin BenjaminWR08817
DeSean JacksonWR65917
Mike WallaceWR57818
Torrey SmithWR36219
Chris IvoryRB414319
Steve SmithWR1311820

This narrative continued in the other years I examined.

In 2013, just three older players finished in the top 20 at their positions, and none finished in the top 10. Conversely, 12 younger players populated the top 20, with an astonishing five finishing in the top 10! Remember, these are players drafted after pick 48, so the star potential is supposed to be limited.

NamePostionExperience2013 ADPPosition Ranking
Josh GordonWR1891
Knowshon MorenoRB41025
Eric DeckerWR3648
Alshon JefferyWR11229
DeSean JacksonWR56010
Jordy NelsonWR55211
Fred JacksonRB69711
Ryan MathewsRB34912
Pierre GarconWR55013
Le’Veon BellRB08115
Anquan BoldinWR108515
Joique BellRB214317
T.Y. HiltonWR16519
Danny WoodheadRB411319
Wes WelkerWR94820

2012 saw a bit more success for the older generation, finishing once again with four players in the top 20. Only Vincent Jackson made it in the top 14 (sixth), and that was after people soured on him when he signed with Tampa Bay. He was clearly a player who deserved to be selected higher based on ability, but losing Philip Rivers made people skeptical. Even Reggie Wayne’s top finish is a bit of an anomaly, as his ADP plummeted following the Peyton Manning-less year and the drafting of a rookie quarterback.

Of the youth movement, two made the top five at their position, another three the top 10, and 10 younger players made the top 20 overall.

NamePostionExperience2012 ADPPosition Ranking
Alfred MorrisRB01365
Demaryius ThomasWR2615
Vincent JacksonWR7696
C.J. SpillerRB21027
Eric DeckerWR2507
Stevan RidleyRB15810
Reggie BushRB65414
Reggie WayneWR117314
Shonn GreeneRB37115
Michael CrabtreeWR311615
BenJarvus Green-EllisRB45119
Steve Smith SrWR114919
Mikel LeshoureRB010720
Steve JohnsonWR46820

In the three years I examined, no player with more than five years of NFL experience drafted in the middle to late rounds managed to crack the top five at their position, and just one managed a top 10 finish during that span.

Bottom line, if you’re trying to find a diamond in the rough, older players are not the place to look. Their star potential is severely capped, and “above average” is often the ceiling for veteran players.

But Doesn’t Age Indicate Consistency?

Of course, the obvious counter to this argument is that veteran players, while not necessarily possessing the same “star” upside as their younger counterparts, will provide the consistency and stability needed to help a fantasy roster avoid the roller coaster variance of outcomes that is often associated with higher-risk, younger options.

So I went ahead and looked at average ranking based on age, which should indicate the average “finish” (return on investment, or ROI) you can expect when drafting a younger player compared to an older player.

In 2014, the average ROI when drafting a younger player was an average finish of 41st overall. For older players that number actually dropped slightly to 43rd.

In 2013, the ROI for younger players was a 48th place finish, which was identical to the ROI for older players.

2012 provided the only statistical boon for veteran players thanks to the aforementioned Reggie Wayne and Vincent Jackson, with veterans finishing 36th and the youth finishing 49th.

Based on the three-year sample size, it is far from definitive that older players provide more yearlong stability than young players on average.

Draft Strategy

While more research can obviously be done to further determine ideal roster construction, the numbers indicate that drafting youth provides you with a consistency and a probability for ideal success that drafting veterans simply does not. Sure, drafting young players provides you with more variance, but with that comes the potential of finding the next star at the wide receiver or running back position. That’s a variance that veteran players simply don’t possess.

The numbers already indicate that managers favor youth almost 3 to 1 over veteran players in drafts, but perhaps that number should be even higher. While there is always the risk of drafting Trent Richardson instead of Lamar Miller or Jeremy Hill, at least you’ve given yourself the chance at a top-10 finisher.

Whatever your draft strategy is, it always helps to understand the facts surrounding your decision-making process. Being risk averse and trending towards veteran players may not lose you a fantasy championship, but it won’t win you one either.

While Woody may have a special place in our hearts, we have to face the facts: Buzz Lightyear is just a much cooler toy.