2020 Fantasy Football: PPR Draft Strategy
I have written other draft strategy articles in the past, most notably here. I believe that the guidelines in that article apply to all fantasy football leagues, and they are largely apposite regardless of which fantasy sport happens to be your drug of choice. So, if you need a general draft prep piece, I would still recommend revisiting that one. The names may change, but the general principles remain the same. This year, I decided to put something together that focuses more on PPR draft strategy. PPR, for those who may not know, means point per reception. Any time a player catches a pass, he receives an additional point towards his fantasy total. Some leagues split the baby and offer half-point PPR. Trends in recent years indicate that more and more leagues are going the PPR route, for better or worse.
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Drafting in PPR leagues is a bit different than doing so in non-PPR leagues. Let us suppose a 12-team league that starts two running backs, three wide receivers, a tight end, and a Flex. Those seven roster spots per team will see an increase in their weekly totals based on PPR scoring. Quarterbacks (along with kickers and D/ST) will see no such increase. This will change the value of nearly every player on the board. Lucky for you, we have ADP for both PPR and standard formats. Still, ADP has its flaws, and I wanted to quantify the amount to which PPR scoring affected different positions. I looked at the weekly averages of the top players at each position over the past two seasons to see the impact quarterbacks have in standard versus PPR leagues. The results are below and are followed by my PPR draft strategy.
Position PPR Total Pts. PPR % Non-PPR Total Pts. Non-PPR %
Quarterbacks 20.71 14.11% 20.71 17.54%
Running Backs 34.98 23.83% 28.80 24.39%
Wide Receivers 48.56 33.09% 32.46 27.49%
Tight Ends 13.12 8.94% 8.58 7.27%
Flex 11.69 7.96% 9.81 8.31%
Kickers 9.47 6.45% 9.47 8.02%
D/ST 8.24 5.61% 8.24 6.98%
Totals 146.77 100.00% 118.07 100.00%
|Position||PPR Total Pts.||PPR %||Non-PPR Total Pts.||Non-PPR %|
2020 PPR Draft Strategy
As you can see, the impact of quarterback scoring goes down between three and four percent in PPR leagues. There is a long-standing theory in fantasy football that you would wait on quarterbacks in drafts. I looked at the last five years of draft data and compared that to the top 12 fantasy quarterbacks on a point per game basis. I decided to use points per game because if you drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2017, you were not necessarily “wrong” for taking him. He got hurt. There is a difference. Anyway, in each year from 2015 through 2018, exactly half of the quarterbacks drafted in the top 12 (that would be six) finished that season as top-12 quarterbacks. Last season, that total rose to seven. Drafting a top-12 quarterback is a 50/50 proposition.
Here is something even scarier to consider if you want to draft a quarterback early. In the last five years, the quarterback drafted as the consensus QB1 has never finished that season as the QB1. None has even finished in the top five in any of those seasons. The closest was Rodgers in 2017 and Patrick Mahomes last year. Each finished as the QB6 on a per-game basis. They also both missed time due to injuries, which dropped their overall ranking even further. The average finish of players drafted as QB1 since 2015 on even a per-game basis is just QB9. Meanwhile, only one quarterback who ended up being the overall QB1 in that timeframe was drafted inside the top 10 at the position.
To be fair, players at other positions fall short of expectations also. However, it is more often the case that a running back or wide receiver falls short of his draft capital due to injury rather than poor performance. Consider how disappointing Le’Veon Bell was last year. Yet Bell still finished as the overall RB16 (RB18 on a point per game basis). Sure, he finished as an RB2, and not the RB1 fantasy managers considered him to be on draft day. But he was still a fantasy starter caliber player. The same can be said for Odell Beckham, last year’s WR24. Jared Goff, on the other hand, was drafted as a top-10 fantasy quarterback and finished outside the top 20. From Week 10 through Week 12 last year, Lamar Jackson outscored Goff 102.46-13.32. Having a quarterback who vastly underperforms is a virtual death sentence to a fantasy football team.
These numbers have me a bit conflicted. I see a group of top-six fantasy quarterbacks this year, and then I believe there is a bit of a drop-off. 2020 could be the year that chalk wins out, but recent history has not been kind to those who grab quarterbacks early. I would still advise against streaming quarterbacks. Doing so rarely works out, and players seem to fall short in games that should be shootouts or good matchups. If I cannot draft one of my top six, I would rather settle on a Tier Two quarterback with a solid weekly floor (Josh Allen or Drew Brees, for example) than draft two Tier Three quarterbacks (Carson Wentz and Jared Goff are examples) and try to guess which one will provide more points each week.
I found it very interesting that the total percentage of fantasy points that the top 24 running backs provided over the last two years were basically the same in PPR as they were in standard leagues. That would suggest that PPR draft strategy should not deviate much from standard formats when it comes to the first few rounds. The elite running backs are still head and shoulders the most valuable commodities in fantasy football. I would also throw in the following caveat, which holds in both standard and PPR leagues. Fantasy football scoring is not linear, and the mean score does not equal the median score. Here are a couple of examples both from prior data and from a possible upcoming draft quandary to illustrate what I mean.
In 2018, the average top-24 PPR running back scored 17.49 points per game. However, the RB9 (Joe Mixon) and RB10 (James White) combined to average 17.33 points per game, which put them just below the average. Meanwhile, the overall RB1 (Todd Gurley) and RB41 (Jalen Richard) combined to average 17.62 points per game – slightly above the average. Last year, the spread was even more pronounced, to a damn near comical level. The average top 24 back had 16.78 PPR points per game. RB9 (Leonard Fournette) and RB10 (Mark Ingram) combined to score 16.73 points per game. Again, just below average. Christian McCaffrey averaged 29.5 points by himself. You could have paired him with Dion Lewis (last season’s RB81 on a per-game basis) every week and averaged 16.80 points.
All of this is to say that if you can draft McCaffrey or another back that you think can approach that level of production, you may be able to wait on your RB2. But if you draft in the back half of the first round, you will have to think hard before selecting a player at another position with either of your first two picks. The table is tilted so far towards the elite all-purpose backs that it will be difficult to compete even if you have two “above average” running backs. Playing in a PPR league does not mean you need to massively downgrade backs like Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb. The pair combined to average 17.74 PPR points per game in 2019. That exceeded the top-24 average, but still fell short of McCaffrey and Peyton Barber’s (last year’s RB55) combined 18.33 PPG mark.
Let us say you draft Joe Mixon late in the first round. At the beginning of the second round, you must decide between Austin Ekeler and Chris Godwin. If Godwin is projected for 255 PPR points and Ekeler for 247, the first instinct is to take Godwin. He has a higher projection, and you have one empty RB spot as opposed to three WR spots. However, there is much more to the decision than that. If you project ahead to the 3-4 turn, your best running back option may be Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who is projected for 200 points. But you may also be able to snag A.J. Brown, who projects to score 229 points. The combo of Ekeler and Brown is projected to outscore Godwin plus CEH, so you may be better off drafting Ekeler over Godwin even though Godwin has a higher individual projection.
Regardless of how you attack the first few rounds, I would also advise a minor tweak in PPR draft strategy. In the middle rounds, I think it makes more sense to draft pass-catching backs as opposed to your standard handcuff. For example, Latavius Murray (current PPR ADP: 124.22) had at least 11 PPR points in just three of the 14 games in which Alvin Kamara played last season. Duke Johnson (current PPR ADP: 130.54) reached that mark in six of 16 games last year. In a standard league, I would rather have Murray for the upside, but I would prefer Johnson’s weekly floor in a PPR league. Murray has the higher ceiling in case of injury, but Johnson provides a more viable Flex option each week.
Johnson is an example of a running back who should be a solid contributor in PPR leagues. Maybe I was just a year early on him. Either way, do not underestimate running backs who catch passes. This seems obvious, but you would be surprised at how a player’s value changes due to PPR parameters. I recently looked at a set of projections that had James White and Tarik Cohen outside of the top 40 running backs in standard formats. Using the same statistics, both were inside the top 30 using PPR scoring. That is a two or three round difference in value. These types of inconsistencies create value throughout your draft. For the record, that increase in value is reflected in our ADP data, but it is something that goes overlooked far too often on draft day.
As seen in the chart, wide receiver production significantly increased in PPR formats. Their impact increased by over six percent in 2018 and a shade over five percent last year. However, this does not mean you have to overvalue the league’s top wide receivers. Michael Thomas was basically to wide receivers what Christian McCaffrey was to running backs last year. And yet, Thomas’ production is vastly easier to replace. Just 16 running backs came within 15 points per game of McCaffrey during his historic 2019 season. But a whopping 67 wideouts came within 15 points per game of Thomas. The combo of Thomas and Josh Jacobs scored fewer points per game than the duo of CMC and James Washington. Last season, 56 wide receivers averaged at least 10 PPR points per game. Washington was not among them.
I think the main focus of my 2020 PPR draft strategy concerning the wide receiver position is that I do not feel this is the year to overpay at wideout. I am fine with grabbing one in the first four rounds for security purposes. But after that, I would just let the value fall into my lap later. There are a TON of wide receivers available late in drafts that can provide big-time scoring each week. Brandin Cooks was a top-15 fantasy wideout for four straight years before 2019. His current ADP is in the WR4 range. This year’s crop of rookie receivers may challenge to be among the best class ever at the position, yet not even one of them is going as a top 40 fantasy wide receiver. At least one of them will likely turn in a top-25 season.
In most PPR leagues, you will need to start three wide receivers each week, as well as a Flex spot. Fantasy managers generally reserve the Flex position for a running back in standard leagues. However, that spot tends to gravitate towards the wideouts in PPR leagues. Even if we split the Flex spot evenly between running backs and receivers, that means that in an average week, fantasy managers in a 12-team league are usually starting a total of 30 running backs and 42 wide receivers. According to our ADP, the 30th running back off the board is Cam Akers at pick 78.1. The 42nd wide receiver off the board is Darius Slayton at 102.13, a full two rounds later. And there are probably 20-30 receivers beyond Slayton who can provide weekly value.
Another good thing about receivers is that their weekly production tends to be a bit more realistic than their RB counterparts. If you draft Tony Pollard in the 12th round, you are hoping for an injury to Ezekiel Elliott. If that does not happen, Pollard is almost worthless. Meanwhile, wideouts like Henry Ruggs, Sammy Watkins, Jalen Reagor, and Breshad Perriman are also available in the 12th round. Those guys have the potential to be starters in fantasy right away. Wide receivers also benefit from individual matchups. If Watkins projects to primarily line up in Week 1 against Vernon Hargreaves, who ranked 108th among 115 qualified cornerbacks according to Pro Football Focus, he could be considered a fantasy starter. I would not draft a wide receiver solely off a favorable Week 1 matchup, but Watkins could provide more value in Week 1 than Pollard does all year.
The percentage of tight end production relative to a fantasy team’s total points increased in PPR formats by a slight margin (less than two percent in both years), but the actual number of points was a bit jarring. The average top-12 tight end scored just over eight points per game in standard-scoring in 2018 and 2019. In PPR, that number rose to over 13 points. The elite pass-catching tight ends provide a stability that is hard to come by once you start dipping deeper into the tight end pool. Travis Kelce finished as a top-12 PPR tight end in every single game he played last year, not counting Week 17. Even Lamar Jackson had a week outside the top 12, which Christian McCaffrey and Michael Thomas each had a week where they finished outside the top 30 at their respective positions.
Because of this, I want to try to secure one of the top five ends off the board. I have already stated that my preference is to go RB-RB, even in a PPR league, and Kelce and George Kittle are both going in the second round. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. If you are dead set on grabbing either one of those guys regardless of cost, I do not blame you. I just think I would pivot towards Zach Ertz, Mark Andrews, or Darren Waller. After those five, things get a bit iffy for me. Other tight ends have loads of potential, but who have not quite put it together over a full season yet. I still would not stream tight ends. As is the case with quarterbacks, it is usually not worth the headache.
Believe it or not, I prefer to play in leagues with kicker spots, and I do not think that picking kickers is a total crapshoot. I have mentioned in the past that kicker scoring often parallels team scoring. If you can surmise which NFL teams will be near the top of the food chain in total points scored, you will likely be on the scent of a relevant fantasy kicker. With that said, there is no reason to select a kicker before the final two rounds of a draft. If Harrison Butker is off the board, go to Justin Tucker, then Wil Lutz, and down the line. You can even stream kickers each week based on early week Vegas odds. Opposing kickers averaged 10.3 points against both Miami and Tampa Bay last year. Butker was the only full-time kicker to exceed that mark, averaging 10.4 points per game last season.
I find that streaming defenses each week is much easier than it is at other positions. If you happen to uncover this year’s Patriots in the draft, more power to you. I would just politely remind you that most fantasy managers were drafting the Patriots D/ST outside the top 10 defensive units in most leagues last summer. The return on investment in fantasy defenses has been notoriously poor throughout the years. Ask managers who drafted Chicago, Jacksonville, or even the Rams how that draft strategy worked out for them. Draft picks at all positions are going to fall short of expectations. That is just the nature of the beast. So, do not exacerbate the situation by drafting a D/ST too early. Find a team that has a favorable matchup early on and ride the wave.
In leagues with 10 starters (QB, 2RB, 3WR, TE, Flex, K, D/ST) and eight bench spots, I would prefer to reserve almost all my bench spots for running backs and wide receivers. There is no reason to carry an extra kicker or defense, so do not even bother doing so. Having a backup quarterback or tight end is defensible in certain situations. If you cannot land a top-five option at either position, you can choose to carry two top-15 options and play the matchup game. However, if you have someone who is an elite scorer at either position, having a backup is often a wasted spot. If you have George Kittle, you are not benching him in Week 3 just because T.J. Hockenson faces Arizona. I can see justifying the roster spot to have an additional Flex option, but do not get carried away.
I know, I know… “What about bye weeks, Mick?” Well, the Kansas City Chiefs have a Week 10 bye this year. Are you really going to carry around an extra quarterback or tight end so you will have someone to plugin for Patrick Mahomes or Travis Kelce four months from now? If you want to have an idea of how much things can change in four months, just think about what the world was like four months ago. Even if you have a starter with an early bye (Russell Wilson or Darren Waller, for example), I can guarantee you will be able to find a suitable replacement when the time comes. So maybe (maybe) you earmark one roster spot for a backup quarterback and tight end. That should leave you with a total of at least 12 RB/WR.
If I go with 12 backs and receivers, I will generally draft five running backs and seven wide receivers. Flex spots in PPR leagues tend to get filled by wide receivers more often than running backs. So, in most cases, teams are starting two running backs and four wideouts. Carrying five and seven wide receivers would ensure that you have three backups at each of those positions. This is yet another reason why you do not need to go crazy freaking out over bye weeks. If you draft a minimum of five running backs, the odds of three or four of them having the same bye week are slim to none. A logjam of bye weeks usually only becomes an issue when a team only has three or four backs because they have wasted picks on backup kickers and D/ST units.
During the Draft/Summary
I cannot sit here and pretend to pontificate about precisely how you should go about drafting. All drafts are different, and so much is dependent on draft slot. There cannot be a universal PPR draft strategy when only a couple of teams can draft Christian McCaffrey. And while plenty can happen throughout the year, and one player does not a fantasy team make, it would be disingenuous to pretend that the same strategy will apply at 1.01 as it does at 1.12. At its core, drafting in fantasy football is about marginal cost. It is easy for me to make blanket statements like, “I want a top-six quarterback and top-five tight end.” But it must be worth the draft capital for me to do so.
When I discussed running back earlier, I mentioned that you would essentially need two top-10 backs to make up for a season like the one McCaffrey had last year. Well, if you drafted two running backs in Rounds 1 and 2, trying to get a quarterback and a tight end early is going to leave you painfully thin at wide receiver through the first few rounds. I personally do not think that is the worst-case scenario to be in this year. It all depends on how you value each player. If you are all-in on DeAndre Hopkins and George Kittle as your first two draft picks, you will have to project how comfortable you are with the running backs available in the next three or four rounds.
One of my general core principles regardless of the format is to remain fluid. A draft rarely pans out the way you expect. Feel free to target players and to go above ADP if you have a strong inclination. But do not lock yourself into a particular set of players or even a specific position beforehand. I am also a firm believer that you should create projections before the draft based on your league’s scoring system so you can identify value. Even PPR leagues have different variations that fall under the PPR umbrella. In some PPR leagues, touchdown passes may be worth four points or six. Some may start two wide receivers instead of three. There may be an IDP component involved. These factors and more will change the value of each player in the pool.
The most important thing whether we’re talking PPR Draft Strategy or any other format is to be prepared and not get flustered. There is no such thing as a perfect draft. You are going to hit on a few players and you are going to miss on a few. You may end up missing on more than you hit on. Hey, that is what the waiver wire is for, right? Either way, just make sure that you make informed decisions with every single pick. Do not blindly follow ADP or one set of rankings (even mine) to make your picks for you. Keep up with the latest NFL news and check out the constant stream of fantasy football articles from our incredibly knowledgeable staff of writers and contributors. Now that you are ready to put all of this knowledge to good use, go to our draft lobby and sign up for a league now!
Got a different take on PPR Draft Strategy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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