The Greatest Positional Values Over the Past Decade (Fantasy Football)
Every year, we talk about the “cheat code” players in fantasy football like Michael Thomas in 2019, who averaged 18.8 fantasy points per game. Elite players will often single-handedly carry fantasy owners to the playoffs. The important thing to understand about “cheat code” players is that their value is completely tied to their position group in traditional fantasy formats (1QB). Here are two examples from 2019 to emphasize this point:
- Austin Ekeler only scored 0.9 pts/g more than Jimmy Garoppolo.
- Mark Andrews only scored 0.2 pts/g more than Damien Williams.
After looking back at fantasy data from years past, I began to wonder…which offensive positions were most important in fantasy over the past decade?
Keep in mind that positional value is a macro-level approach that doesn’t tell the full story. Positional value refers to the true advantage you receive from a player when factoring in the limitations for your required starting lineup (i.e. you can only start 1QB). You will win more fantasy games if you understand and use positional value to your advantage.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, all stats are based on a ½-PPR scoring (pts/g) and the full 17-game NFL season. I know, I know…only 16 games matter. But this is an all-decade article, so the full-season stats were more appropriate. Also, this article is focused on redraft leagues only.
Which positions did you benefit most from having the top players? In order to answer this question, I broke down the positional value by comparing a top-3 player with the 12th best player in the position for each year of the past decade. This analysis identifies the position groups where the elite players really separate themselves from others within their position group.
What does this mean? Running backs were king in the 2010s. You were better off with an elite running back and mediocre wide receiver than you were with an elite wide receiver and a mediocre running back. The elite RBs separated themselves from the pack. Meanwhile, mediocre WR1s were relatively similar to the elite WR1s (compared to the other position groups).
I was also surprised to see that the positional value of the tight end position was pretty middle of the pack. I expected to see a big spike in 2011 when Rob Gronkowski (17.9 pts/g) and Jimmy Graham (15.3 pts/g) recorded two of the three best fantasy seasons among tight ends since 2010.
Dropoff after Top-12
Which positions had the biggest decline in pts/g from the positional 1 spot (i.e. RB1) to the positional 2 spot (i.e. RB2)? This measures the level of depth among the group of players that were in starting lineups pretty much every week.
RB1s were worth their weight in gold during the past four years, but the “solid player” depth was pretty consistent among the position groups beforehand. So teams that were RB heavy had an advantage in recent years, more so than in the past. Conversely, teams that were WR heavy had a relative disadvantage in recent years.
We also see the top-12 QBs in 2011 providing tremendous value over the replacement level QBs. However, QB’s were pretty replaceable for the rest of the decade. This is precisely why most fantasy experts have no issues with streaming the QB position (although the goal is typically to hit on a late-round flier).
Which positions had the most depth? Which had the least depth? In order to find the answer, I compared the top-12 players with those who finished in the 25-36 range. I also looked at players in the 13-24 range vs those in the 25-36 range. Therefore, this depth analysis is more relevant for running backs and wide receivers since you have to start two or three every week. How did the average RB1 compare with the average RB3 (flex)? How about RB2s vs RB3s (flex)? What about wide receivers?
The graph below looks at the difference in points between the top-12 players vs those in the 25-36 range (i.e. RB1 vs RB3).
The graph below looks at the difference in points between the players in the 13-24 range vs those in the 25-36 range (i.e. RB2 vs RB3).
These graphs illustrate that wide receivers were the deepest position group over the past decade. On the other hand, running backs were the shallowest.
The running back position is the most important in fantasy football. I know this is not an earth-shattering take, but now I have ten years’ worth of data to back it up. The elite running backs tend to provide the greatest positional value among all position groups. Additionally, the running back position has the least depth. Meanwhile, the wide receiver position is the deepest. This difference in value between RB and WR is further compounded by the fact that RB1s score more than WR1s. Over the past decade, the average RB1 scored 1.6 more fantasy points per game than the average WR1. Remember that running backs are king in redraft fantasy football leagues.