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Reassessing Best Player Available Draft Strategy: Why Teams Should Often Bypass BPA To Maximize Overall Value

Jonathan Bales

“Reassessing Best Player Available Draft Strategy: Why Teams Should Often Bypass BPA To Maximize Overall Value”

Sounds more like the title of a thesis than a blog post.  Nonetheless, I wanted to again delve into what is one of my favorite football topics: draft strategy.  Last year, I published an article called “Why Selecting Best Player Available in NFL Draft a Myth.”

The post highlighted a few of my unconventional (and wildly unpopular) thoughts on draft and game theory, the most intriguing of which is that selecting the best player available, even at a position of need, is often a mistake.  I will recap that article with a few quotes, but I suggest clicking the link above and rereading it if you are bored at work, or entertained but simply don’t have a lot of work to do, or even if you have a ton of work, or if it is nighttime and you are off of work, or if your name is Betty.  Just read it.  Here we go. . .

Like many (or even most) of the long-held NFL “truisms,” the concept of selecting the BPA (best player available) is mistaken.  As is the case with punting on 4th and 1 or always kicking extra points, selecting the BPA will actually lead to sub-par results.

GMs who say they always take the BPA are simply lying.

The key to this strategy is a concept I’ve discussed in a few of my fantasy football articles–VORP (value over replacement player).  In a nutshell, VORP means selecting not the player with the most projected points, but the player with the largest disparity of projected points compared to the next player at the same position who you could secure in a later round.  If you read between the lines, you can see game theory is really the backbone of this strategy.  To effectively maximize value, it is critical to understand perceived worth.

Game theory is all about understanding opponents’ beliefs and using them to your advantage.  If you had perfect knowledge of other teams’ draft boards and knew the top player on your board was rated three rounds lower on everyone else’s, you would wait to select that player.  BPA, even at a position of need, promotes the dismissal of potentially useful information.

Although no team has perfect knowledge of a player’s perceived value, the notion that perceptions can and should alter draft theory remains unchanged.  BPA as a draft strategy is too shortsighted and could force premature selections, ultimately decreasing overall value.

On a real world example from 2011:

Let’s assume the ‘Boys will select a defensive end and an offensive tackle in the first two rounds, but they’re unsure of the order.  Now, let’s provide a numerical value to the possible targets.  As a guide, we will use the NFL draft trade value chart and my own 2011 NFL Draft Big Board to assign these values.

As I’ve already proposed, let’s assume Dareus (ranked No. 2 on my Big Board) is available for the Cowboys.  At that ranking, he’s worth a whopping 2,600 points.  As I’ve argued in the past, however, I think there is a major problem with selecting a defensive end in the first round.  By the time the Cowboys’ 40th selection rolls around, there is zero chance that a top-tier offensive tackle will be left on the board.  My top five tackles–Tyron Smith, Ben Ijalana, Anthony Castonzo, Gabe Carimi, and Derek Sherrod–will almost certainly be gone by the second-round.

Thus, the top offensive tackle that is left to pair with Dareus, according to my personal Big Board, is Alabama’s James Carpenter. . .all the way down at No. 71 overall.  According to the value chart, that selection is worth 235 points, bringing the Dareus/Carpenter duo to 2,835 combined points.  Certainly our VORP has been compromised, as Carpenter is terrible value in the second-round.  But is Dareus’ BPA status enough to compensate?

To determine this, let’s project the Cowboys’ possible selections if they take an offensive tackle in the first-round.  At No. 9, the ‘Boys may very well have their pick of the litter, and according to my board, Tyron Smith (No. 8 overall) is that guy.  The eighth overall selection is worth only 1,400 points–a far cry from the 2,600 that we assigned to Dareus.

We can already see the Dareus/Carpenter duo is going to win out.  Even if the Cowboys somehow land Cal’s Cameron Jordan in the second-round (which is clearly a pipe dream), his 14th overall ranking–worth 1,100 points–would still bring the Smith/Jordan duo to only 2,500 overall points–335 behind Dareus and Carpenter.

Although the Cowboys selected an inside linebacker in the second round, they still landed Smith in the first.  My hunch is that he was their BPA, but he should have been selected even if they had a prospect rated higher than him.

It’s worth noting that, although the optimal tandem turned out to be that which was comprised of the BPA, the process by which we discovered that was still VORP.  Thus, teams will often arrive at the right selection, but implement the wrong method of getting there.  Selecting the correct player helps you now, but selecting the correct player by utilizing the proper draft strategy will help you in the future.

Mathematics often leads to counterintuitive results, but the teams which disregard their “gut” and utilize the numbers on draft day are generally the most successful.  Remember, the “gut feelings” are already implemented into a team’s rankings (whether they admit to it or not).  Draft day is not the time to follow hunches.

What I mean here is that film study, interview results, and other non-measurables are already reflected on your board.  Ironically, if you disregard your board on draft day (in relation to VORP, not BPA), you will actually be forgoing those gut feelings which were already implemented into your rankings.

VORP is an all-encompassing draft strategy that leads to greater ultimate value than BPA–a more short-sighted draft philosophy which disregards the future in favor of optimal value right now.  Would you rather have $100 today (BPA) or $500 tomorrow (VORP)?

Well?

After I posted that article, I found more support in my critique of BPA draft strategy from Code and Football in their article on why drafting the BPA is simply a way to optimize buyer’s remorse:

Consider this scenario: you have three players in the middle rounds you are considering, whose “true career value” is about the same. We’ll assume drafting is an efficient market for now, so our estimation of the value of these picks is a normally distributed estimate whose mean is based off their true career value. Which one of these men do we draft? We draft the player whose value we have overestimated the most. Consequently, we draft the player most likely to underachieve our expectations.

Since in most drafts there are very few times a true BPA falls into the lap of teams (i.e. players where one is wildly superior to all other candidates), it would seem that BPA is a way of optimizing how heartbroken a team will be over the draft choices it actually picks. Though this approach would appear to gather the best athletes, in a draft with a large error, and multiple situations where you’re picking from nearly equivalent athletes, perhaps all BPA will get you is maximally suffering from buyer’s remorse.

This idea has differences from my own, but it points out the fact that the value of taking the BPA is often minimized because of a team’s overestimation of a prospect’s ability.  The argument that BPA can help a team secure the most elite prospects, then, seems less compelling.  With 32 teams all acquiring nearly the same information, the chance that a single team will obtain a player whose value is so much greater than the other options that it overrides the value of VORP is slim at best.

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In the two main articles I posted on draft strategy (here and here), we had over 50 really insightful comments.  Many of these raised interesting critiques of VORP, game theory, and other draft strategies, and I wanted to address a few of them now. . .

“VORP doesn’t address the ‘real world’ value of specific positions.”

It does.  Much as the measure of “intangible” things like heart and determination are actually reflected in advanced football statistics, the value of a specific position over another (quarterback to linebacker, for example) is reflected in a team’s draft board.

“VORP as a long-term strategy will lead to less overal talent than BPA.”

VORP leads to the greatest overall value because it has a far greater focus than BPA, or BPA at a position of need (BPAAAPON, if you will).  VORP is in the business of temporarily bypassing short-term value to secure greater value in the future.

The most valid critique of the draft theory is that it requires too much knowledge, i.e. you can never have enough knowledge of other teams’ intentions for the draft theory to work in practice.  It is a pipe dream, some might say.

While this might be possible, I think that argument would be a better one when applying VORP to the later rounds of a draft.  For the most part, we all know which players will go in or around the first couple of rounds, so predicting the abundance of talent at a specific position is made easier early in the draft.  That task only becomes very difficult after the first few rounds when boards do not match up as comparably.

In effect, VORP becomes a less valuable draft strategy as the draft rolls along and opponents’ beliefs become less predictable.  In the later rounds, when the goal is to maximize upside (as opposed to the goal of minimizing downside early in the draft), selecting the BPA has more merit.

“The draft is a crap shoot, so VORP is no more valuable than any other strategy.  Just select the best players.”

The draft is a crap shoot in which a large majority of success stems from luck, but at the same time that doesn’t negate the value of specific draft strategies.  The idea is comparable to blackjack, where the outcome of any single hand is determined almost solely by “luck.”  A great blackjack player might win perhaps one out of 100 hands more than an average player.

In a sport like football where the competition is so stiff, though, very small advantages equate to big success.  It is the difference between a DeMarcus Ware and a Bobby Carpenter, for example.  One draft selection can lead to a monumental difference in production.

“VORP is a baseball term and should not be applied to NFL draft strategy.”

I simply use VORP (value over replacement player) as a label.  Change it to ‘position scarcity’ if you would like.  The idea is the same: short-term bypassing of the BPA can lead to overall greater value, particularly in the draft’s early rounds.

“Too many things can happen in the future which make using VORP now usless.”

The same thing can be said for any draft strategy.  We can only work with the information we have at hand.  What if Tony Romo tears his ACL in camp?  There are a lot of things in the future that could alter the efficiency of past decisions, but the best way to maximize the opportunity for future success, and the only way, is to use all present information.

“VORP assumes that each draft is an independent variable and the potential of future drafts has no bearing on the draft this year, which simply isn’t true”

Again, all present information can and should be factored into rankings.  I’d say the ability for any organization to effectively evaluate the positional talent for a draft which is over a year away, however, is small enough that it should have little to no bearing on current decisions.  In addition to not knowing draft slots, teams don’t have a grasp on which prospects will enter the draft, which ones might get hurt, how they will perform in their final collegiate seasons, and so on.  Bypassing a talented player at a position of need which VORP draft strategy suggests to select because the subsequent draft might be full of talent at that position seems like a poor philosophy regardless of the draft technique used.

“The draft is an inefficient market, devaluing the use of VORP.”

VORP’s value would certainly be decreased if the draft was an inefficient market, but for the most part it is very efficient.  Yes, teams hit and miss all the time, but that doesn’t make the market remarkably less efficient.  When we take a large sample size of drafts into account and analyze the success of players based on draft slot, we see a very specific downward curve.  Whether we compare draft spot to years as a starter, Pro Bowl selections, or career approximate value, higher picks tend to perform superior to lower ones: http://www.advancednflstats.com/2009/04/career-success-by-draft-order.html

In short, although there are random deviations (which are to be expected), teams are generally efficient in the draft market.

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Fantasy Football: Is it Time to Draft a Quarterback Early?

Jonathan Bales

For the last two decades, running backs have ruled the fantasy football world.  In the 90’s (before fantasy football went mainstream), workhorse backs such as Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith were king.  I know this because I participated in “mail-in” leagues as early as age nine.  What was my mother thinking?

This workhorse running back trend carried all the way into the early-2000’s, when players like Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes nearly single-handedly carried fantasy owners to championships.

Recently, though, the value of the running back position has been steadily decreasing.  One reason for the decline is the shift to PPR (point-per-reception) leagues.  I personally participated in just three non-PPR leagues last season.  This may sound like a lot, but let’s just say these three leagues composed less than 10% of the those in which I participated.  Don’t judge me.

In any event, PPR leagues have created a more NFL-like dynamic in which wide receivers are nearly as valuable as running backs.  It isn’t uncommon to see three, even four wide receivers get drafted in the first round of twelve-man fantasy leagues nowadays.  I wrote an article on PPR scoring that was reviewed and labeled as “outstanding,” “literary genius” and “the best piece of writing I’ve read in the past 25 years.”  Yeah, I was the one who reviewed the article–so what?

Another reason for the decline in running back fantasy value is the manner in which backs are now utilized in the NFL.  Very few workhorse RBs exist anymore–only six running backs had more than 300 carries last season, and only nine had more than 250.

Instead, nearly all teams implement two or three-back systems to limit the damage to each running back and increase their effectiveness.  This has made the few top-tier running backs who are left (Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, for example), very valuable.  After those type of players, though, there seems to be quite a drop-off.

So how does this relate to fantasy football draft strategy?  Well, I never thought I’d say this, but 2010 might be the year to select a quarterback in the first round.

In prior years, this strategy was frowned upon.  The reason was simple.  Although quarterbacks have always racked up a lot of fantasy points, the difference (or standard deviation) between the top-tier quarterbacks and second and third-tier signal-callers was not overwhelming.

Why take Quarterback A (380 projected points) in the second round, for example, when you can take Quarterback B (360 projected points) in the sixth round?  The 20 point gap in projected points is more than made up for by the VORP (Value Over Replacement Player).  This is a term I discussed at length in my article on fantasy football and game theory.

Recently, however, the standard deviation among quarterbacks has increased.  The difference between a top-notch No. 1 quarterback (Drew Brees, for example) and a low-end No. 1 quarterback (Matt Ryan, for example) is vast.

This trend is exemplified in the graph above (provided by Advanced NFL Stats).  In a recent article, I explained how to read the chart:

The most important part to fantasy owners is not the height of the curves, but rather their slope.  A steep slope means a larger disparity between players, and therefore a larger VORP.

In previous years, the quarterback slope would have been flatter.  The example I used above with Quarterbacks A and B would be a representation of a flat slope quarterback projection.

As you can see in the graph, however, the quarterback slope is the steepest of all positions.  The NFL’s transition into a pass-happy league has not only increased the overall projected fantasy points for the entire quarterback position, but it has also made it increasingly valuable to snag one of these top-tier QBs.

Click “2” below to continue.

Like my analysis?  Sign up for our 2010 Fantasy Football Package.

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Fantasy Football and Game Theory: Understanding Your Opponents’ Beliefs

Fantasy football can sometimes be paradoxical in that the tasks which seem the most simplistic, such as drafting players, are often quite complex.  “Common sense” notions, such as selecting the players who will score the most points, can often lead to sub-par fantasy squads.

The reason for this is an idea about which I have spoken before–game theory.  See, fantasy football isn’t just about knowing football (in fact, we would argue that knowing football really isn’t even essential to being successful at fantasy football at all).

Of course having knowledge of the NFL helps, but even more crucial to your success as an owner is understanding the thoughts of your opposition.  Making decisions based on the projected choices of others is what game theory is all about.

For example, the other day I was talking to my dad (who is in a dynasty league of mine) about the upcoming season.  I asked who he would draft if he had the No. 2 overall selection, and he said Matt Forte (of course no one can believe anything anyone in our league says about players, as the league has reached the point where 95 percent of the information floated out there is “crap,” but that isn’t the point).

When I asked him why he would select Forte with the second selection, he answered quite matter-of-factly, “Because he is going to score the second-most points.”

Let’s suppose that is true.  If the season plays out and Forte ends up with the second-most points, does that justify his selection with the No. 2 overall pick?

The answer:  not at all.  In selecting players based solely on projected points, owners ironically miss the opportunity to secure the maximum overall projected points for their squad. The goal of fantasy football actually isn’t to maximize the point value of each individual selection, but to do so for your entire team.

I talked about this a bit in my article on the importance of creating tiers in your fantasy draft board. There I wrote:

Be sure to project players’ points (according to your scoring system) and then rank the players within each position into tiers. In a way, you can imagine all the players within the same tier as equal, i.e. don’t worry about names–simply acquire as many players in as high of tiers as possible, and you will have maximized the value of your fantasy team.

This strategy will allow you to, in a way, “buy low and sell high”–the same methodology which maximizes value in the stock market, business transactions, and, yes, even fantasy football.

This value-maximization strategy involves a term called VORP–“value over replacement player.”  Advanced NFL Stats has an excellent article on how to utilize VORP during your fantasy draft.

As your pick approaches, estimate the number of each position that will be taken between that pick and your subsequent pick. For example, in my recent 8-team league draft, between my 4th pick in the 1st rd and my 13th overall pick in the 2nd round, I estimated there would be 1 QB, 2 WR, and 5 RBs taken. (Before my 1st pick there was 1 QB, 1 WR, and 1 RB taken.) I calculated the difference between the best available RB and the RB 6 spots down the board, because he’s the next RB available to me if I don’t take a RB this round. I also calculated the difference in value between the best QB available, and the next best QB. Finally, I calculated the difference between the best WR available and the WR 2 spots down the board. These differences are the costs of not picking each position in that round. I picked the position with the highest cost.

In a nutshell, VORP means selecting not the player with the most projected points, but the player with the largest disparity of projected points compared to the next player at the same position who you could secure in a later round.

The graph to the left (provided by Advanced NFL Stats) is a visual representation of this.  The most important part to fantasy owners is not the height of the curves, but rather their slope.  A steep slope means a larger disparity between players, and therefore a larger VORP.

Thus, Forte is the incorrect selection at No. 2 overall not because of anything related to Forte’s skill set or potential 2010 production, but because of other owners’ beliefs concerning these things.  If Forte can be had in the back of the second round (which is likely), my dad could acquire him and, say, Adrian Peterson (as opposed to Forte and LeSean McCoy, for example).  Hmmm. . .which combo would you prefer?

Know football and you will be a decent fantasy owner.  Know football and what others think they know about football, and you have the potential to be great.

But what if another owner really likes Forte?

This is something for which you will have to account and the primary reason game theory is so useful in fantasy football.  If my dad whole-heartedly believes another owner will select Forte before his second round pick, for example, then drafting him in the first round is the right move (assuming he cannot trade).

So is it always smart to maximize VORP?

Unfortunately not.  Fantasy football is about risk/reward.  As such, it is sometimes beneficial to pass on a more “consistent” player for one with larger upside, or vice versa.

For example, let’s assume you are in round five of your draft and have thus far assembled a team of Steven Jackson, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson, and LeSean McCoy–all fairly high-risk players.

The top players left on your board are Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers.  You have Cutler with 20 more projected points than Rivers, and the VORP says Cutler is the pick.  The intelligent decision, however, might be to pass on Cutler due to his inconsistent and unpredictable play.

If you determined Cutler has a 75 percent chance of scoring 300 points, for example, while Rivers has an 80 percent chance to do the same, Rivers should be the pick even though his projected points (if both players perform to their maximum ability) is lower than Cutler’s.

The graph below is similar to the one on the previous page, but it accounts for both the scarcity and consistency of each position.  Notice that the initial slope of the tight end position is greater than that of the wide receivers.  As Advanced NFL Stats writes:

At no point does the TE curve exceed the WR curve in absolute terms. But the TE curve is steeper, which indicates that the differences between the top available TE and the next-best-expected TE is greater than that for WRs throughout the draft.

If everyone knew this, they’d jump on the top few TEs before even picking their first WR (in most years). But they don’t, so you can take advantage by waiting to pick a TE until the last round before you think the first TE will be chosen.

If you have been able to follow along, you may have realized that we have come full circle.  In the example I provided above, my dad was wrong to choose Forte because game theory dictates he pass on him–knowing that other owners are low on Forte can and should influence that decision.

My dad would be maximizing his VORP when he passes on Forte, but I have shown that is not always the most efficient strategy.  Sometimes it is valuable to disregard VORP and select a safer, more consistent player.

Consistency is already factored into the graph above and it should also be in your fantasy rankings.  In the TE/WR scenario above, the inherent inconsistency among wide receivers makes them less valuable than tight ends despite more projected points.

Why do we not simply select a tight end in the early rounds, then?  That brings us back to game theory–even if a top tight end (or Forte) is really valuable, it is more valuable to wait and grab him at the last possible moment, securing high-value players at other positions in the meantime.  The thoughts of the other owners concerning tight ends should influence your own.

Thus, we must sometimes forget about VORP to garner consistency, but understanding the concepts of consistency and scarcity requires an intimate knowledge of VORP.

As the Daoist philosopher Lao-Tzu might say, “To acquire value, you must first relinquish it.  Forget it, and it will be yours.”

And therein lies the fantasy football paradox.