Drafting QBs: Opportunity Cost

JJ Zachariason
Jeff Brubach recaps Denver's Thursday night win and other news from around the NFL in Friday's Daily Dose

Guest writer JJ Zachariason is doing an offseason Rotoworld series on fantasy quarterback draft strategy. JJ authored The Late Round Quarterback in 2012. A link to this series' initial three columns can be found here: Quarterbacks & Fantasy Value, here: Quarterbacks & 2013 Depth, and here: Fantasy QB Supply & Demand.

This is part four in a five-part series.

Your fantasy football draft isn’t just about the players you select. It’s also about the players you don’t select.

I’ve already connected basic economic supply and demand principles to fantasy football, but now it’s time to do the same with another traditional economic term: opportunity cost.

Your Econ 101 textbook will helpfully explain that opportunity cost is “the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action. “ In other words, when you perform any action, whatever you didn’t do is your opportunity cost.

Each time you make a choice throughout a given day, you associate a value to that choice. This value is usually not even consciously recognized. Do you want broccoli or asparagus as your side for dinner? You choose broccoli, and don’t think twice about it. Broccoli tastes good and is nutritious, adding some sort of value to your overall meal.

You didn’t view the asparagus as highly as you did broccoli, so you didn’t choose it. Asparagus still has nutritional relevance though, and in the end, holds value. The value of the asparagus, in this instance, is the overall opportunity cost of the choice you made.

So what do broccoli and asparagus have to do with fantasy football? Well, let’s pretend you’re in a snake draft. You’ve got the third-to-last pick in the first round, and you begin to contemplate whether or not you should select the top quarterback in the year’s class. With five seconds left before you run out of time, you decide to choose the quarterback, believing that the eighth-best running back just didn’t have the same amount of value as the top signal-caller.

Your roster now shows you have one player – a quarterback – and you feel good about it. “I’ve got my quarterback,” you say. But do you know what you don’t have? A top running back or receiver.

When you made your choice to select a passer in Round 1, you lost the opportunity to obtain first-round running back or wide receiver talent. You chose broccoli, but left the asparagus. And trust me, that asparagus was a better choice.

Historically, a top running back outscores a middle-of-the-road one by a larger margin than any other position. In other words, squads with a top running back are gaining a larger advantage over opponents with top quarterbacks. In standard leagues, this really can’t be disputed.

The reason people draft quarterbacks early is because of certainty. Will Aaron Rodgers be a top quarterback in 2013? Probably. Will C.J. Spiller be a top runner? He should, but there’s more risk.

But for just a second, let’s pretend that every position is equally inconsistent (to be fair, the consistency from position to position is a lot closer than you’d think). In this scenario, you’d know the first running back selected would finish as the top running back, the second as second and so on.

Before I move further, I want to speak to my last article on the Supply and Demand of Quarterbacks. The article references the fact that “demand” of a position is equal to the number of starters at a particular position in your league. In a 12-team standard league, that gives us at least 24 running backs and 24 receivers, and just 12 quarterbacks. Inherently, because of what the fantasy football lineup structure dictates, quarterbacks aren’t in high demand.

Now, if we’re pretending every position is equally inconsistent, then we can take a look at ADP data to draw conclusions as to where these starters – the demand of the position – are being drafted. This, in turn, will help us comprehend the idea of opportunity cost.

Since 2006, using thousands of mock and real draft data, the 24th running back in a 12-team league has typically left the board at the beginning of Round 5. The 24th wide receiver -- the last “starter” in a league at the position -- drops off the board in the middle to end of Round 5. Quarterbacks? Well, the 12th quarterback, historically, doesn’t get selected until the middle of Round 8.

Think about what this means. There’s a point variation – let’s call it “X” – that separates the top running back from the worst starter in a standard fantasy league. Given the first running back (and remember, we’re projecting him as the best running back in the league) gets drafted first overall, you’re seeing a four round “spread” of X. In other words, you’re seeing a drop off in points at running back of approximately X/4 (remember, it’s the beginning of Round 5, so only four rounds are concluded) per round up until the last starting running back is selected.

The same equation works for wide receivers, as the first one will traditionally leave the board toward the end of Round 1, and the last starter will be drafted around the end of Round 5. We’ll call this number “Y”, and use Y/4 to speak to the point drop off per round at the wide receiver position.

The top quarterback, looking at the data, gets drafted toward the tail end of Round 1 as well. If we compare that to where the 12th quarterback gets selected, there’s a seven-round difference. If the difference between these two quarterbacks, in terms of fantasy points, is “Z”, then there’s a drop off in points of Z/7 per round up until the last starting quarterback is selected.

These simple equations – X/4, Y/4 and Z/7 – are your opportunity cost formulas. They say, “When you choose to not draft a particular position, this is what you lose.”  In this case, the opportunity cost is the number of points per round lost by making an alternative choice.

Given standard scoring, there’s only been one season since 2006 where Z (quarterback differential) has been greater than X (running back differential). That happened in 2011, which was one of the more anomalous seasons the NFL has seen due to the lockout. And while at times the difference in fantasy points from best to worst starter at quarterback has been greater than wide receiver, you’re still getting the final starter at quarterback three rounds after the last starting wideout is selected.

These numbers, too, don’t tell the entire story. The opportunity cost formulas above assume a constant drop off, when that’s not exactly the case. Really, we should be concerned with where the largest drop offs occur, as this is where you can acquire the most value.

Most of you have probably used a “tiering” approach when you draft your fantasy squads. In essence, grouping players in “tiers” allows you to understand where a production drop-off occurs within a position. For instance, if we’re looking at top running backs for 2013, you may have Adrian Peterson in his own tier, as no running back – in your mind – can even come close to Peterson’s potential.

The players within each tier should be fairly interchangeable. After Peterson, you may group Doug Martin, Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch in your second tier. To you, the difference between these players should be minimal. The reason they’re in a separate tier than Peterson, however, is because Peterson has a clear advantage over them. He’s that much better.

Your goal should be to draft the last player in a tier, as you’d be obtaining said player at the best bang for your buck.

Relating this to the opportunity cost formulas above, if, say, the majority of “Z” occurred at the beginning of the draft, the top tier, then we may put more of a premium on top quarterbacks. In other words, if the top few quarterbacks have a significant edge over the rest of the position, then those quarterbacks would be more valuable.

This, however, isn’t the case. If we continue to assume that every position is equally inconsistent, then there should be no reason to draft a quarterback early. Since 2006, top running backs and receivers have outscored their position by a larger proportion of their “spread” (X and Y from above) than top quarterbacks compared to their position. Signal callers, in actuality, have decreased from best to worst starter at a fairly constant rate, showing the top ones really aren’t giving you a significant fantasy edge. Couple that with the fact that you can get the worst starter in your league in the eighth round, and you’ve got yourself a devalued position.

Many question if this concept coincides with their league, as they believe their draft is different. While history can dictate and show that the 8th round provides the “worst” starter at quarterback, your league may go quarterback-heavy at the beginning of the draft. Really though, most people usually overrate that statement. Drafts don’t differ nearly as much as people think they do. But even if it really is that different, you should continue to draft for value. You’re just devaluing your choice by selecting a quarterback because everyone else does.

Throughout this argument, I’ve also assumed that positions are equally inconsistent. This isn’t the case. If we use cumulative totals to judge consistency, it’s clear that Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady should be valued higher because we know they’ll finish as top quarterbacks. As noted, we’re not all that sure that someone like C.J. Spiller can do the same, even though his talent is there.

Consistency, however, doesn’t equate to value. And year-long consistency is a truly overrated metric. That’s something many fantasy owners fail to realize, and it’s a subject better left to another article altogether. Keep an eye out for my final piece in the series, on quarterback replaceability.