This time last season the fantasy community was in the throes of a debate about the relative draft value of an injured Rob Gronkowski. Some argued Gronkowski was such a dominant fantasy force that even 12 games of him was worth an early-round pick. Others disagreed, saying his injury situation and risk of further injury even when he returned should sink his value.
I weighed in on this topic, as I am one to do, saying that I did not think Gronkowski was worthy of the fourth-round ADP he carried into 2013. I was correct as it turned out, but more important than my manifest fantasy football genius is what I found while researching the Gronk topic, and how that information pertains to another brewing fantasy argument:
Whether or not Jimmy Graham deserves to be the first non-running back off the board this draft season.
For me, the answer is unequivocally yes.
While researching Gronk last season I compiled the fantasy point totals of the weekly top scorers at each position for 2012, and used that information to derive the relative standard deviation of “starting” fantasy options. In layman’s terms, the relative standard deviation attempts to show the spread of a given set of data. In this case, the RSD would show how far week-to-week fantasy scores deviated from an average fantasy score at each position.
The data showed the tight end position had the largest spread between the average player and the players at the extremes of the starting options, indicating that an elite tight end was relatively more valuable than an elite player at any position outside of running back. The data also showed elite quarterbacks are -- by far -- the least valuable of all the other important fantasy football positions.
The 2013 data mirrored the 2012 data fairly closely, with the top-ten weekly tight ends clearly showing the most variance. Quarterbacks still lagged well behind tight ends and wide receivers, though the gap had closed.
This RSD analysis is important as it pertains to the first round of fantasy drafts. The goal in the first round should always be to draft a player that is a weekly difference maker. This means you need a player that will win his head-to-head matchup almost every week. The RSD analysis would indicate an elite tight end is the most likely to be that weekly difference maker, and therefore should be the first non-running back position drafted.
The analysis is flawed, however, because the weekly top scorer at a position is very rarely the “No. 1” player at the position. Peyton Manning was only the top scoring quarterback three times last season. Josh Gordon was only the top scorer twice. Graham was more dominant with five first-place finishes, but even so that means there were 11 weeks where Graham was playing and was not the top tight end option.
If trying to decide which non-running back needs to be drafted first, then, it is important to look at how the player's people are actually considering in the first round performed against replacement level.
The Josh Gordon situation makes the wide receiver analysis more difficult, but it does not matter which wide receiver is examined. They variability of the position means no player can be truly dominant.
Calvin Johnson, who will likely be the first wide receiver off the board in 2014, only outscored the No. 20 week-to-week wide receiver by 4.7 fantasy points, and only outscored the No. 10 option by .2 points last season. Demaryius Thomas fared even worse, outscoring No. 20 by 3.2 points and actually being outscored on average by the No. 10 week-to-week wide receiver.
There are very rarely “dominant” wide receivers, but the top options retain their first-round value simply because of their consistency as compared to the other options at the position. While Calvin Johnson was not dominant, he did finish in the top-ten in half his games, and provided a reliable starting option all season. There are not many wide receivers that can make that claim.
The same is not true of tight ends and quarterbacks. Both positions are chock-full of average players that perform averagely each week. In order to be worth a first-round pick, a player needs to be dominant. Peyton Manning and Jimmy Graham both jumped that hurdle last season.
Manning outscored the average No. 10 weekly quarterback by an astounding 6.9 fantasy points last season, and he outscored the average No. 5 weekly quarterback by 2.1 points. Graham was a clear second, outscoring the average No. 10 weekly tight end by 5.2 and beating the No. 5 option by 1.3, though his numbers come much closer to Manning’s if his injury-impacted, zero-point performance against New England is removed.
Those numbers show Manning was the most dominant fantasy football player last season, suggesting Manning should be the first non-running back drafted this year. These numbers are misleading, though, for three reasons.
The first is Manning’s numbers are massively inflated by his huge Week 1. He outscored the No. 10 quarterback that week by 25.8 points and the fifth-best quarterback by 21.4. Huge numbers like that dramatically alter the average in a small sample size. His “dominance” numbers fall well below Graham’s without that dramatic week.
Secondly, we as a fantasy community have not been particularly good at predicting the top quarterback as of late, meaning the first quarterback drafted is not likely to be the top quarterback at the end of the season. Over the last 10 seasons, only once has the top quarterback drafted been the top quarterback at the end of the season. These top-drafted players are unlikely to fall on their face -- with Michael Vick in 2011 being the most notable exception -- but they are not guaranteed to dominate either.
Top-drafted tight ends have not fared a whole lot better with only three top finishes over the last ten seasons, but two of the three have been Jimmy Graham the last two years. If I am betting on Graham or Manning finishing as the best fantasy option at their position in 2014, I am taking Graham without hesitation. It is the much more likely option.
Finally, Manning’s 2013 was the best fantasy football season we have ever seen. The likelihood of any quarterback, much less 38-year-old Manning, recreating it in 2014 is slim. On the other hand, Graham has averaged at least ten fantasy points a game in each of the last three seasons and has averaged 188 points a season over that span.
Taking Manning in the first round is betting he will get somewhere in the realm of 400 fantasy points again, which is a long-shot to say the least. Taking Graham in the first round is betting he will get back to around the 200-fantasy point mark, which he has basically averaged over the last three seasons.
I know which one of those bets I am willing to make. From every perspective, it is clear Jimmy Graham is the most valuable non-running back available.