News & Analysis

The season that was: What was the worst possible draft?

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 04: Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals runs for a first down against the Washington Redskins during the second quarter of a game at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

In last week’s article, we used the benefit of hindsight to draft what would have been the perfect 2017 fantasy team. Today, we’re going to be looking at things a little differently. Instead of trying to draft the best possible team, we’re going to draft the worst. In some cases, we may have just gotten unlucky with injuries, but in other cases, perhaps we should have known a certain player would have been a complete and utter bust. (I’m looking at you, Darren McFadden drafters.)

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:

With these charts as our guide, 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 the worst possible draft would have looked like, and whether these selections were poor choices in hindsight.

Here’s my best approximation of what the most imperfect draft would have looked like (drafting from the 1.01 spot, with what their actual ADPs were in parentheses):

Round 1: (1.01)

David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: 1.01)

Why it made sense: Johnson totaled 407.8 fantasy points in 2016, the 11th-most by any player at any position all-time. Not only did this lead all players that season, but it was 82.4 more than the next-closest non-quarterback. Johnson averaged 18.3 carries and 7.5 targets per game, equating to 23.2 expected fantasy points per game, or the most by any player this past decade not-named Le'Veon Bell. The volume he saw and production amassed was immense, and absurdly, head coach Bruce Arians promised an even greater workload for Johnson in 2017, saying he’d like to get him to 30 touches per game. For perspective, Johnson averaged 23.3 touches per game in 2016. Of course, given this expected workload, injury risk was high, but even balancing that with his high ADP, he was still well worth the pick given the league-shattering upside he held over any player not named Bell.

Why it didn’t: Nope, you just got seriously unlucky. Make your sacrifices to the fantasy gods and pray you’re luckier next season.

Round 2: (2.12)

Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings (ADP: 3.03)

Why it made sense: You read my article arguing that Cook was the superior talent to Leonard Fournette and agreed with me. You read my article examining play-caller tendencies and agreed there was massive fantasy potential in owning Pat Shurmur’s lead running back. You saw the impressive and bell-cow-like preseason workload Cook was given (leading all running backs in targets per snap) and assumed it would carry over into the regular season.

Why it didn’t: Nope, you just got unlucky. I think all of these assumptions were correct. On a small enough sample (min. 70 carries, 59 qualifying), Cook was our fourth-highest-graded runner, ranking seventh in yards per carry (4.78), and 10th in PFF elusive rating (56.1). Fournette, meanwhile, averaged just 3.29 yards per carry outside of two long runs. Cook averaged 16.9 fantasy points per game and 16.5 expected fantasy points per game across four games this season. Despite these numbers being skewed by Cook leaving his final game early in the third quarter, these numbers rank 10th-best and seventh-best at the position, respectively. Following his injury, from Week 5 to the end of the season, both Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon finished the year as top-15 fantasy running backs. I believe Cook was well on his way toward a monster fantasy season had he not gotten hurt.

Round 3: (3.01)

Terrelle Pryor, WR, Washington Redskins (ADP: 3.06)

Why it made sense: Pryor finished the 2016 fantasy season ranking 21st among wide receivers in fantasy points. This was despite being forced to catch passes from a committee that consisted of Cody Kessler, Josh McCown, Robert Griffin, Kevin Hogan, and Charlie Whitehurst. After signing with the Redskins in the offseason, we saw a massive offense and quarterback upgrade coming for Pryor. In 2016, Washington averaged 24.8 points per game to Cleveland’s 16.5. In 2016, Browns quarterbacks combined to average a passer rating of 77.4, while Kirk Cousins ranked seventh-best with 97.2. Washington also lost both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in free agency, opening up 214 targets for Pryor and the other receivers. And, of course, we know Pryor has all of the raw athletic ability in the world.

Why it didn’t: Although the volume was there for Pryor in 2016, as was the fantasy production, efficiency loomed large as a reason to be skeptical of Pryor’s massive ADP jump. Cleveland passers averaged a passer rating of only 73.6 when targeting Pryor, below their average, and ranking 18th-worst of 96 qualifying wide receivers. On top of this, 2016 was only Pryor's first full season playing the wide receiver position, totaling just two career receptions coming into the season. So, of course Pryor would struggle with route running in 2017 – it was just his second season actually playing the position. On a larger scale, this also backs up a trend that fantasy analysts have noted for some time. Wide receivers who change teams in free agency tend to be overvalued in fantasy drafts. (Expect an in-depth study from me on this in the offseason.) Quarterback chemistry, volume not remaining stagnant from one team to the next, and scheme sensitivity are a few of many factors we might be neglecting when salivating over a wide receiver moving on to a “better” offense.

Although these are some explanations for Pryor’s struggles before a season-ending ankle injury caused him to miss the team’s final seven games, you may have also just gotten unlucky. Pryor reportedly suffered that injury in Week 2, and it certainly could have played a role in his poor production.

Round 4: (4.12)

Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: 5.01)

Why it made sense: Martin has played at least 12 games in just two of his NFL seasons. In those years (2012 and 2015), he finished second and fourth among running backs in fantasy points. In both seasons he ranked top-three in yards after contact per attempt and top-seven in missed tackles forced per attempt.

Why it didn’t: Heading into the season, in three of his five NFL seasons, Martin failed to play even 12 games, implying significant injury risk. In those incomplete seasons, he also played poorly, averaging only 9.4 fantasy points per game, as opposed to 17.2 in his other two seasons. Rushing efficiency fell off as well, during these incomplete seasons, with yards after contact per attempt falling from 3.15 to 2.28. On top of this, you were asked to draft Martin knowing he’d miss the team’s first three games due to suspension. In retrospect, he was a fine boom-or-bust draft pick, but likely a little too expensive at ADP. What went wrong this season? He stayed healthy, but just underperformed, and operated in a committee (something we knew would happen in this offense). Although the talent has been there in spurts, it wasn't there this season, and Buccaneers GM Jason Licht confirmed “[Martin] wasn't ever the same” after returning from his suspension. If there’s a lesson here to be learned, it’s that we shouldn’t draft a suspended, inconsistent, and injury-prone player this high.

Round 5: (5.01)

Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: 5.09)

Why it made sense: This offseason, Robinson had an ADP of WR27 after falling from eighth at the position in fantasy points per game to 36th in 2016. I was lower on Allen Robinson than most of my peers heading into this season, citing woeful efficiency numbers and a stated desire by the team to lean as heavy on the run as possible. Although Jacksonville did run the ball 49 percent of the time this season (most of all teams), Jacksonville’s wide receivers (as a unit) ranked 18th among all teams in fantasy points, which likely would have been enough for Robinson to beat his ADP (all teams ahead of Jacksonville had a WR1 ranking top-25 in fantasy points per game), had he stayed healthy.

Why it didn’t: Robinson played just three snaps in Week 1 before succumbing to a season-ending ACL injury. You got hosed.

Round 6: (6.12)

Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP: 6.10)

Why it made sense: In 2015, Eifert ranked fifth among tight ends in fantasy points per game. He also led the position in fantasy points per target, which isn't too surprising when you realize he also led the position in touchdowns (13, in 13 games). However, to highlight just how efficient he was, if you removed every touchdown from every tight end that season, he still would have led in fantasy points per target. In 2016, Eifert again ranked top-three in fantasy points per target and ranked seventh in fantasy points per game (or second if we exclude all games playing 15 snaps or less).

Why it didn’t: There’s no doubt Eifert has plenty of upside, but there was one big risk factor – Eifert rivaled Martin as one of the league’s most injury-prone players being selected in the top half of your drafts. Including 2017, Eifert has now played on only 24 of his team's last 65 regular-season games. It’s hard to say you got unlucky here, but that also doesn’t mean it was a terrible draft pick. You knew what you were getting into when you drafted him – he’d be a top fantasy tight end when on the field, but with a good chance he might get hurt. He got hurt.

Round 7: (7.01)

Darren McFadden, RB, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: 7.03)

Why it made sense: It didn’t.

Why it didn’t: Okay, okay. I understand the reasoning. You drafted Ezekiel Elliott in the third round and were nervous you’d be left without a viable backup if Elliott were suspended for the rumored six games. Dallas has a top offensive line, a run-heavy offensive philosophy, and ranked fifth in points scored in 2016. In 2015, the 4-12 Cowboys ranked second-worst in points scored, and yet, from Week 7 until the end of the season, McFadden ranked fifth among running backs in fantasy points.

However, there were a few faults in your line of reasoning.

  • There was considerable risk that McFadden would not be the handcuff to own. He ranked fourth among Dallas running backs in snaps and opportunities in 2016. Perhaps Alfred Morris or Rod Smith, ranking above him, (or none of the above, if serving in a committee) were the running backs to own at a much more palatable price-tag.
  • You’re drafting a player you’re projecting to be useful for, at most, six games. You’re also drafting this player in the seventh round, ahead of other running backs who can also provide safety (Frank Gore) or a higher ceiling (Alvin Kamara).

As we all know, McFadden was active for only one game this season (seeing just one snap), while Smith and Morris served in a committee in Elliott's absence, producing just a combined two games inside the top-15 at the position in fantasy points. Take the L.

Round 8: (8.12)

Danny Woodhead, RB, Baltimore Ravens (ADP: 9.02)

Why it made sense: Woodhead has finished 12th and third among running backs in fantasy points in each of his last two full seasons. He left the Chargers to join a Baltimore offense that ranked second in running back targets over the previous two seasons, and had just lost projected starter Kenneth Dixon for the remainder of the year.

Why it didn’t: You drafted a 32-year-old running back coming off of a season-ending ACL injury, who had missed 27 of his teams’ last 48 games. Things looked good for Woodhead to start the year, scoring 6.7 fantasy points on Baltimore’s first offensive drive of the season… and then he got hurt. He returned in Week 11, but ultimately, never proved useful for fantasy purposes.

Round 9: (9.01)

Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (ADP: 9.04)

Why it made sense: He’s Andrew Luck and he’s on the board in the ninth round (QB12).

Why it didn’t: Most early reports speculated Luck would be out for only the first few weeks of the season. With him missing the entirety of the 2017 season, you got a little unlucky (and were possibly misled or lied to by members of the Indianapolis front office), but this was a risk/reward calculation that I’m not sure was especially terrible in hindsight. Luck had played hurt before (in 2015 when he was our second-worst-graded quarterback), but in all other seasons, Luck averaged 20.8 fantasy points per game, which would have ranked third-most this season. He was also our third-highest-graded quarterback in 2016. If he was on the field and healthy, I’m confident you would have gotten top-five production from Luck. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here, and one I’m continually reminding myself when doing rankings in the offseason, is to be more pessimistic than optimistic regarding players dealing with or returning from injury.

Round 10: (10.12)

Houston Texans defense (ADP: 10.11)

As always, the worst decision you could make is drafting a kicker or defense too early.

Houston was frequently drafted as the third defense off the board, but finished 29th in fantasy points, sorely missing the losses of J.J. Watt and A.J. Bouye.

In our previous article, we talked about how excellent of a pick Jacksonville's defense was, scoring 14.0 fantasy points per game, the most of any defense this past decade. That’s highly impressive, but at the same time, they were outscored by the average of all defenses facing Cleveland this season (14.1 fantasy points per game.) As always, my typical recommendation is to wait until the final round of your draft and “stream” defenses, rather than draft one early.

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