News & Analysis

Improving on the snake draft

Dec 25, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs with the ball for a touchdown during the game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s note: Every Sunday, we’ll wrap up the week on PFF Fantasy with some topic one of our writers has been thinking about of late, and recap the features, columns, and podcasts you could find on the site that week.)

In our recent superflex mock fantasy draft, I had the 12th pick of 12.

(As an aside, MFL has apparently decided that I don’t warrant early picks in these mocks. We’ve done 10 as a staff so far this offseason, and I think the earliest I’ve picked is 10th. I actually got the third pick in one draft in this series, but then I realized I had screwed up one of the base settings and had to start over … and I got 12th. I wonder what drafting Le’Veon Bell would be like.)

In a slow draft, just from a time-devoted perspective, having one of the picks at the turn isn’t so bad. You can make a couple picks and then take a day, two days off altogether. It’s at least not stressful. But (and maybe this is just me) in a superflex in particular, it made me employ a strategy I didn’t love. My ideal would have been wait until Round 3 or Round 4 at the earliest to start on QBs, but I couldn’t afford to be wrong in my expectations, pass on QB at the R1/2 turn, and then see a massive run on the position and end up with, say, Ryan Tannehill and Mitchell Trubisky.

To solve the problem, I just took Tom Brady at 2.01, and ultimately I’m happy with how the draft turned out, but the point is that staring down the barrel of 22 picks without me doing anything was daunting.

Auction drafts are the best. I think we can all agree with that. (Okay, probably not all of us, but I’m writing, so you have to agree with my premise.) But sometimes it’s not practical to do an auction, so we have to go with a snake. And for what it is, a snake draft isn’t bad. It’s definitely easy to both use and explain. But we have worlds of data that show that the earlier you pick in a snake, the better you do. We know this. It’s not a guarantee that the first overall pick will win or that the last pick in the first round will finish last, but the odds say those are the most likely outcomes, or close to it.

So isn’t there a better way? If you get the massive advantage of the first overall pick, shouldn’t you then have a slight penalty for your next one? If you have to wait and take the 12th-best player, is it fair that you’re likely waiting to take the 36th-best as well?

I’d love to see us go deeper on fantasy draft orders. I’m shamelessly stealing this from a Bill Simmons Grantland piece from 2012 where he uses the draft order for a team wins pool among friends, but here’s one suggestion (for a 10-team league, but the point still works):

Round 1 pick
Round 2 pick
Round 3 pick
Team 1 1 10 (20) 6 (26)
Team 2 2 6 (16) 9 (29)
Team 3 3 3 (13) 10 (30)
Team 4 4 8 (18) 5 (25)
Team 5 5 5 (15) 7 (27)
Team 6 6 9 (19) 2 (22)
Team 7 7 1 (11) 8 (28)
Team 8 8 7 (17) 1 (21)
Team 9 9 4 (14) 3 (23)
Team 10 10 2 (12) 4 (24)


More confusing than now? Yeah, sure. But I would definitely argue it’s more equitable. If you assign a numerical value to every pick (i.e. Pick 1.01 is 1, Pick 1.10 is 10, Pick 2.08 is 18), this system has every draft slot totaling 46 or 47, with the 46s (and therefore a slight overall advantage) predominantly going to the teams that pick later in the first round. For comparison’s sake, in a traditional 10-team snake draft, Pick 1.01 would total 42 through three rounds, while Pick 1.10 would total 52, a clear 1.01 advantage.

Simmons’ example is for a three-round, 10-team draft, but a similar approach — basically building a mini-Magic Square out of draft picks — could be employed for any league, any draft size, any number of rounds. It’s more complicated than things are now, but in a game where we are parsing carries down to the hashmark and inventing regression models to predict kicker extra-point success, what’s a little extra complication?

The snake draft is the predominant approach in this game, but it’s time to ask whether there’s a better approach. And I would argue the answer is a resounding yes.

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