News & Analysis

The season that was: How would a perfect draft have looked?

Dec 24, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) rushes against the Tennessee Titans during the second half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

You won your fantasy league this year. You earned bragging rights over all of your friends. You crushed the draft, taking Todd Gurley in the second round and Alvin Kamara in the 13th. But did you have a perfect draft?

Hindsight drafting is an often-mocked thought experiment in fantasy circles. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, but I think it’s more valuable than not to look back at that year that was, with the benefit of hindsight, and try to figure out what we got wrong and what we should have known.

Today we’re going to be looking at ADP from August and attempt to piece together (trying not to reach more than a full round on any single player) what a perfect draft would have looked like, and why some of these picks made perfect sense in hindsight.

Comparing average production over a 10-year-sample, here were the draft picks that provided the most and least value (over expectation, relative to their ADP) to your teams.

Here’s my best approximation of what a perfect draft would have looked like (drafting from the 1.12 spot), with the players' actual ADPs given as well:

Round 1: (1.12)

Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams (ADP: 2.07)

Our first pick is easy. Not only does Gurley win my award for Most Improved Fantasy Player, but he wins the award for Fantasy MVP and (in my estimation) narrowly edges out Alvin Kamara as the best value pick of your 2017 fantasy drafts.

Heading into this season, there were 320 instances of a running back ever accumulating at least 275 carries in a single season. Among these 320 instances, Gurley’s 2016 season ranked fifth-worst in yards per carry (3.18).

Last offseason the debate was, “Is Gurley bad?” when the debate should have been, “How bad is Jeff Fisher?” The answer, of course, is, “the worst.” On that list of 320 different running back seasons, four of the 12 worst seasons by yards per carry came from a running back coached by Jeff Fisher.

As detrimental as Fisher was for the offense, 31-year-old wunderkind Sean McVay appeared to have the opposite effect. Last season the Rams ranked dead-last in points per game, but ranked best in the league this season. Similarly, Jared Goff moved from dead-last to second-best in adjusted yards per attempt. Gurley more than doubled his fantasy output from last season, averaging 25.6 fantasy points per game to just 12.4 a season ago.

Based on expected fantasy points (relative to ADP), Gurley added 157.7 fantasy points to your fantasy teams. While Kamara was the only player ranking ahead of him (adding 224.4 fantasy points over his ADP expectation), Gurley gets the edge for most valuable draft pick for one main reason. Not only was his fantasy season (scoring 383.3 fantasy points across Weeks 1-16) the 14th-most by any player at any position all-time, but his fantasy postseason (123.1 fantasy points across Weeks 14-16) was the most by any player at any position all-time.

Round 2: (2.01)

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans (ADP: 3.08)

So, in this scenario, we’re drafting from the 2.01, and we’ll just take the highest-scoring player we don’t think will make it back to us as at 3.12. That player was Hopkins. Despite the high ADP, he was still our 10th-best value pick, scoring 76.3 fantasy points over his expectation. Hopkins finished the season ranking fifth among all skill position players and behind only Antonio Brown among wide receivers in fantasy points. He also totaled 70.4 fantasy points in the postseason, the most by any wide receiver.

What was most remarkable about Hopkins’ season, was his production in spite of poor quarterback play and tough matchups as the only imposing figure on the Texans offense. Hopkins averaged 21.5 fantasy points per game with Deshaun Watson starting, 21.2 fantasy points per game with Tom Savage, and 17.3 fantasy points per game with T.J. Yates. He hit at least 18 fantasy points across two games against Jacksonville – the league’s toughest fantasy defense against wide receivers this season. He also dropped 36.4 against Seattle in Week 7, which was the most they’ve allowed to any wide receiver since 2010.

Much like with Todd Gurley and Jeff Fisher, I’m blaming Hopkins’ down year in 2016 on Brock Osweilerbasically the only quarterback who couldn’t turn Hopkins into a fantasy superstar.

Round 3 (3.12)

Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals (4.12)

This was a close call between Fitzgerald and Jarvis Landry, but I’ll reach a full round (ADP WR24) on the Ra's al Ghul of fantasy football. He ranked fourth among wide receivers in fantasy points during the fantasy season (ahead of Landry) and finished the year with the 10th-best season all-time among all wide receivers age 34 or older.

Although we’ve been waiting for Fitzgerald to hit a wall for years, he continues to prove doubters wrong. Fitzgerald finished the 2015 season as the seventh-highest-scoring wide receiver, but had an ADP of WR30 heading into the following year. He finished that season as the WR11. Still, his ADP heading into this season was only the WR24. I won’t make this mistake in 2018 drafts, ranking Fitzgerald as the WR17 in my early rankings, and am prepared to move him higher if it’s confirmed he has no plans to retire.

Round 4 (4.01)

Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints (5.01)

Like with Fitzgerald, it’s worth reaching the full round on Ingram, who finished the season as fantasy’s sixth-highest-scoring running back and the eighth-highest-scoring flex player during the fantasy season. His ADP plummeted following the acquisitions of Alvin Kamara and Adrian Peterson during the offseason, instigating fears that he might be stuck in a three-way committee. He certainly was until the team traded away Peterson before their Week 5 bye. From Week 6 until the end of the season, Ingram ranked fourth and Kamara ranked second among all flex players in fantasy points. In hindsight, we knew the talent was there, and New Orleans was clearly the best team to be on if you’re a running back stuck in a committee. In each of the last seven seasons, the Saints have finished first or second in team running back fantasy points per game.

Round 5 (5.12)

Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks (6.04)

Although Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz would likely have rivaled Wilson in value added had they stayed healthy, and I’m typically an advocate of drafting quarterbacks late in your fantasy leagues, Wilson is well worth the pick here, ranking behind only Gurley in total fantasy points. Wilson was typically the fifth quarterback off the boards, usually going in the middle of the sixth round, and an obvious value (regardless of our benefit of hindsight in this exercise).

Wilson stayed healthy this year, and produced at levels typical to his (prior to 2016) career norm. As I wrote early last offseason, “In 2016, Wilson hit career lows in passing touchdowns, passer rating, rushing attempts and rushing yardage. This was the first time he failed to finish among the top 10 highest-scoring fantasy quarterbacks (he finished among the top three in each of the last two seasons). This was also the first time in his career he failed to finish among the top five quarterbacks from a fantasy-point-per-dropback standpoint, finishing 18th. Due to Wilson’s production being so out-of-line with his career norms, it’s easy to blame this down year on ankle, knee and pectoral injuries. He played with a knee brace from Week 4 until the playoffs, averaging 2.0 rushing fantasy points per game. Throughout the rest of his career, he averaged 4.9 fantasy points per game on the ground. Those extra 2.9 points per game were the difference in Wilson finishing 14th among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring instead of fifth.”

Round 6 (6.01)

Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles (7.01)

Although my data suggests Jack Doyle was the slightly better ADP value (and I shudder to think of what he might have been able to accomplish had Andrew Luck stayed healthy), it’s still worth grabbing Ertz and the raw points here. Ertz ranked second among tight ends in expected points added as typically the seventh tight end off the boards. He finished third among tight ends and 15th among all receivers in fantasy points per game.

Round 7 (7.12)

Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (2.07 or 8.03)

Just to make ourselves look smarter, let’s pretend we took Hunt prior to Spencer Ware’s season-ending knee injury – when I told you all he would be a fantasy league-winner and when he had an ADP of 8.03. In this scenario, he would have rivaled Gurley as one of the best raw-values in your fantasy drafts.

Hunt ended the season sixth among all skill position players in raw fantasy points. He also finished as the league’s rushing yardage leader and our No. 4-graded running back, and led the NFL in missed tackles forced and yards after contact. Hunt went through an odd five-week stretch during the middle of the season, when he averaged only 12.4 expected and 8.7 actual fantasy points per game. However, production and usage were tremendous following Andy Reid’s surrender of play-calling duties to understudy Matt Nagy. In playoff weeks (Weeks 14-16), Hunt averaged 24.6 expected fantasy points per game and 27.7 actual fantasy points per game, ranking first and third, respectively, over this stretch. In total, Hunt dropped 83.0 fantasy points in the postseason, the third-most by any player this season (Gurley and Le’Veon Bell ranked higher) and the 65th-most by any player all-time.

Round 8 (8.01)

Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings (9.03)

Adam Thielen? An undrafted free agent in 2013, competing for targets with Stefon Diggs on a team with questionable quarterback-play? Who could have seen this (finishing 10th at the position in fantasy points per game) coming? Oh, you mean, the hyper-efficient athletic freak Adam Thielen? To me, this pick made a lot of sense, even regardless of hindsight.

In 2016, Thielen was one of only two wide receivers (the other being Michael Thomas) to rank top-20 in yards per route run, yards per target, WR Rating, and drop rate. His 2016 was also the best season of any wide receiver this past decade in cornerback-adjusted fantasy points per target and also ranked top-10 (this past decade) in depth-adjusted yards per target over expectation.

Round 9 (9.12)

Marvin Jones Jr., WR, Detroit Lions (9.10)

This is the first pick where ADP is lower than where we’re drafting, but let’s just pretend we got lucky and he fell two spots lower than his typical average. I was not high on Jones this season, after he averaged just 6.6 fantasy points per game over the second half of last season. Still, if given the benefit of hindsight, the pick is an easy one, with Jones finishing the year as fantasy’s 11th-highest-scoring wide receiver. What was most impressive of Jones’ season was his level of production despite an extremely tough cornerback schedule. Of 68 qualifying receivers, he ranked top-10 in percentage of routes lined up against (36 percent) and top-10 in percentage of targets in coverage against (30 percent) top-30-graded cornerbacks. Needless to say, his 2017 season has turned me into more of a believer, ranking him as my WR22 heading into next year.

Round 10 (10.01)

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints (12.08)

This pick is a massive reach, but one that would have been well worth it, despite your leaguemates likely laughing you out of the room. (If they think this one is egregious, just wait for your next two picks). I was higher on Kamara than most this offseason, (mostly due to this stat), but I never would have imagined he’d finish as fantasy’s third-highest-scoring non-quarterback. Even if I knew what his volume would look like this season (23rd in touches), I wouldn’t have expected this would have been in the realm of possibilities.

Kamara’s 2017 season was much like Tyreek Hill’s 2016 season, relying heavily on hyper-efficiency, with fantasy experts continually (and falsely) predicting a regression to the mean. Not only was he fantasy’s most-efficient player, but he put together one of the most-efficient seasons all time. Among all (over 2,000 qualifying) players to record at 100 carries in a single season, Kamara's 2017 season ranks fourth-best in yards per carry (6.07). Among all 142 instances of a player recording at least 60 carries and 60 receptions in a single season, Kamara's 2017 season ranks first in both yards per touch and fantasy points per touch.

Round 11 (11.12)

Dion Lewis, RB, New England Patriots (13.12)

After a long offseason debating who the New England running back to own was (Mike Gillislee or Rex Burkhead), it was Lewis who ended the year as fantasy’s 15th-highest-scoring running back (or eighth-highest-scoring running back after Week 4). Benefiting from injuries to Burkhead and James White, he also dropped an impressive 59.0 fantasy points during postseason weeks. Like Kamara, Lewis relied more on efficiency than volume, topping 15 touches in a game just four times this season. Lewis ended the season as our No. 3-graded running back this season, and ranked fourth-best in yards after contact per attempt and best in missed tackles forced per attempt. Though maybe we should have seen this coming – on a smaller sample in 2015, Lewis also ranked top-five in yards after contact and missed tackles forced per attempt.

Round 12 (12.01)

Jacksonville Jaguars defense (UDFA)

As I said earlier, Doyle is probably the better value pick here and no one will be taking a defense this early, but we can just draft Jacksonville’s defense here and then log out with what’s clearly your league’s championship winner. I’d never take a defense this early under normal circumstances, but Jacksonville didn’t perform like a typical fantasy defense this season.

Over the past decade, the 2017 Jaguars rank seventh-best in opposing passer rating and fifth-best in yards per pass attempt allowed. They also scored, on average 14.0 fantasy points per game this season – the most by any defense this past decade and 1.0 points per game more than Julio Jones in 0.5 PPR leagues.

Jacksonville was typically undrafted in fantasy leagues, but this made plenty of sense in hindsight, adding A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell, and Barry Church this offseason. All three graded within the top-10 at their respective positions last season.

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