News & Analysis

One strategy for 3-man best-ball drafts

Feb 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) scores a touchdown over Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby (41) during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Best ball is my favorite way to play redraft fantasy football. The format is growing every year and I’m not surprised, because draft day is considered the most fun day of the fantasy season for many fantasy owners. The number of sites offering best-ball drafts continues to grow and types of leagues available are becoming more creative. This is a good thing for us, because it afford more opportunities to find an edge. My attention is currently fixed on the three-man draft format offered by Draft.

For anyone unfamiliar, Draft best-ball leagues feature 18-man rosters and 0.5 PPR scoring. Starting lineup requirements are:

  • 1 QB
  • 2 RB
  • 3 WR
  • 1 TE
  • 1 Flex

A three-man best-ball draft on Draft is an exhilarating experience. Only 54 players are selected. All three teams end up looking like fantasy championship teams. I’ve had discussions with some high-volume players who are essentially ignoring the format because they feel the end outcome is more based on luck than strategy. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t, but at least for the past few weeks I’ve been hammering these drafts with a strategy of trying to leave with last year’s big three tight ends: Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowksi, and Zach Ertz.

I didn’t do much research before implementing this strategy. It was mostly based on a gut feeling that loading up on elite tight ends could provide a slight edge due to my experience in playing in a number of different scoring formats over the past few years and also from considering strategies that have worked in the hundreds of best-ball drafts I’ve completed over the same time period. What are a few of the reasons I found myself thinking this way? There are dozens of wide receivers capable of leading all fantasy scorers at the position in a given week. At the tight end position, that number shrinks to roughly a third or maybe even less. Again, with only 54 players being selected, there aren’t going to be any bad wide receivers on any of the rosters. Even if each team selects eight wide receivers, only 24 will be taken. There have been many fantasy articles written in the past few years about the importance of collecting high variance players in best ball, which means stacking up as many wide receivers as possible.

These articles are typically aimed at traditional 12-man drafts, however. I submit that while we still want to collect high variance players in three-man drafts, we can view the top tight ends as satisfying that prerequisite because top tight ends can absolutely keep pace with the top-24 wide receivers in 0.5 PPR scoring. Touchdowns carry more weight here than in traditional PPR. I think most players fail to adjust for how dramatic scoring setting changes can impact positional value.

My thinking was that in 0.5 PPR tight ends could even be reasonable flex plays. This means I’m not only theoretically increasing my chances at getting the overall number one scoring output at the position for the week from owning this elite group, I’m also adding another solid flex option. Finally, if we see a repeat of 2017 this season and there are only a few tight ends producing difference-making output each week, then I’m also essentially playing defense against the other owners by preventing them from having access to the biggest weeks from the position. Ultimately, the goal has been to select two of the three top tight ends and gain positional advantage over the team being forced into selecting the TE6. There’s almost a ring of value-based drafting to this.

I wanted to check my gut by doing some research on how tight ends have fared versus wide receivers 0.5 PPR scoring over the past five seasons, specifically in points per game, because that’s the king stat in best ball. How have the top three fared each season versus TE6? The results:

2013

0.5 PPR Rank Player Total Points Points Per Game WR/TE Combined Rank
TE1 Jimmy Graham 261 16.3 WR/TE 5
TE2 Rob Gronkowski 102.5 14.6 WR/TE 12
TE3 Julius Thomas 183.5 13.1 WR/TE 19

In 2013, the three top tight ends finished inside the top-20 overall scorers in points per game when combined with wide receivers. Owen Daniels was the TE6 that season with 11.0 points per game, which was good for 31st among wide receivers and tight ends. The gap between TE1 and TE6 was an impressive 5.3 points per game.

2014

0.5 PPR Rank Player Total Points Points Per Game WR/TE Combined Rank
TE1 Rob Gronkowski 225 15.0 WR/TE 8
TE2 Jimmy Graham 189.5 12.6 WR/TE 17
TE3 Julius Thomas 141.5 11.8 WR/TE 23

In 2014, the top three tight ends once again all finished inside the top-24 in points per game when combined with wide receivers. The TE6 was Martellus Bennett, who scored 10.8 points per game, good for 33rd among wide receivers and tight ends. The gap between TE1 and TE6 was 4.2 points per game.

2015

0.5 PPR Rank Player Total Points Points Per Game WR/TE Combined Rank
TE1 Rob Gronkowski 220 14.7 WR/TE 10
TE2 Jordan Reed 201.5 14.4 WR/TE 14
TE3 Delanie Walker 195 13.0 WR/TE 24

In 2015, the top-three tight ends finished in the top-24 in points per game when combined with wide receivers. The TE6 was Greg Olsen, who scored 11.8 points per game, good for 27thamong wide receivers and tight ends. The gap between TE1 and TE6 was 2.9 points per game.

2016

0.5 PPR Rank Player Total Points Points Per Game WR/TE Combined Rank
TE1 Jordan Reed 137 11.4 WR/TE 20
TE2 Travis Kelce 178.5 11.2 WR/TE 25
TE3 Rob Gronkowski 84.5 10.6 WR/TE 29

In 2016, my strategy would’ve likely flopped. Why? Only tight end finished in the top-20 when combine with wide receivers. Even worse, there was very little difference between TE1 and TE6 that season. Zach Ertz scored 10.4 points per game, just 1.0 point less than the TE1.

2017

0.5 PPR Rank Player Total Points Points Per Game WR/TE Combined Rank
TE1 Rob Gronkowski 189.5 14.6 WR/TE 3
TE2 Travis Kelce 194.5 13.0 WR/TE 7
TE3 Zach Ertz 166 11.9 WR/TE 17

Last season, locking up early tight ends in three-man formats likely would’ve been an effective strategy. The TE6, Delanie Walker, only averaged 8.8 points per game, 45th when combined with wide receivers and a five-year high of 5.8 points per game less than the TE1.

In three of the past five seasons, owning two or more of the top tight ends could have provided an edge in three-man best-ball formats, with the TE1 outpacing the TE6 by 4.2 points or more. In the other two seasons, not much edge was provided. There are some factors that this surface-level research isn’t accounting for yet, most obviously that the top three finishers at tight end weren’t necessarily the top three tight ends in ADP each of those seasons. However, the crystal ball is a little clearer in annual projections for tight ends than it is for other positions; at least two of the three top-three tight ends were repeat performers from the previous year in each of the past five seasons. There was also one name that showed up every time: Rob Gronkowski. Research did show that my gut feeling about tight ends being serious competition for wide receivers (and thus being flex-worthy even in a three-man format) were correct.

The clear takeaway is that drafting Gronkowski in this format is almost assuredly going to be a bonus for your team. When also considering the trend over the past five seasons of two players repeating in the top-three, pairing either Kelce or Ertz with Gronkowksi is the way to go. In the drafts I’ve completed thus far, pulling off one of those pairings means pulling the trigger on Gronkowski in round five and then immediately following with another tight end in round six. I’m going to be pairing Gronkowski and Kelce every chance I get.

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