• Alex Cates

2021 Draft Strategy Recap: Snake Drafts

With the fantasy season over, I am looking back at what snake draft strategies worked, and which did not for the 2021 Fantasy Football Season. Last year, I had 6 takeaways from this analysis:

  1. Don't worry about your draft slot

  2. Target the second tier of QBs

  3. Don't be afraid to reach for a TE

  4. Try to get an RB in the first round

  5. Be wary of the zero RB hype

  6. Go get the players you want

Point 3 was certainly tested this year when we saw Travis Kelce become a 1st round pick. Additionally with the number of RB injuries this past year, maybe zero RB was the way to go. So today, we are going to look back at the 2021 season, which trends stayed the same, which changed? Note: for those looking for a multi-year look, stay tuned, I plan to release a 3 year aggregate analysis before the 2022 season.


The Data

As always, I will be using data from public leagues. In this case I will be using a total of 918 leagues public ESPN leagues. All of them are between 8 and 12 team leagues. Additionally, I removed any league where a manager seemed to give up (defined as starting an injured or bye week player in more than 3 weeks). To simplify things from last year I will only be presenting the championship odds graphs, though know that the wins, final position, and total point averages all tell the same story.


Pick Slot

Lollipop plot of the odds of winning the championship based on your pick slot, we see a benefit to the middle picks again.


Overall, we see a similar story as last year. The top picks were problematic while the middle picks were where the advantage lies. This will be something to watch going forward. We've had 2 years in a row where the top picks were injured (McCaffrey, Henry, even Cook), or underperformed because they lost their QB (Kamara). I don't think we should expect the injury luck to continue (though maybe the high workload of top fantasy picks make them more injury-prone), though having a more balanced team (at least with the top 2 picks) may continue to be a safer and more effective strategy.


Early vs Late QBs

Lollipop graph of championship odds based on when you first drafted a QB


Unlike last year where outside of the top 2 rounds, the earlier you drafted a QB the better, this year we see a noisier distribution. Looking at this, I think it just comes down to which QB's hit vs which ones didn't this year. Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes were going in the 3rd and 4th rounds and did well. Brady or Stafford were going in the 8/9th rounds. While the 2nd tier of QBs (i.e. Lamar Jackson) basically provided base odds and so were worth exactly what you paid for them. So while last year the data seemed to suggest the earlier the better, this year is noisier. You still didn't want to wait to the true end of the draft, but targeting the pre-draft QB8 or 9 was fine.


Early vs Late TE


Lollipop graph of championship odds based on when you first drafted a TE. The red line represents the base odds of winning the championship


Similar to the QB graph, I think this is really driven by who you got. The most interesting to me is that Kelce, (a consensus first-round pick this year, actually was worth it and improved your odds of a championship. That said, the general trend of drafting an early TE did not hold, as Kittle and Waller were disappointments for 2nd/3rd round picks. The 5th round spike is almost certainly driven by Mark Andrews, with him, Kyle Pitts (finished TE9), and TJ Hockinson (who got hurt) going around there. Again, I'd say this is more noise than a trend, though the fact that the Travis Kelce in the 1st round experiment worked, despite the chiefs offense disappointing as a whole, is a noteworthy result.


 
 

Top 2 Pick Positions

Lollipop graph of championship odds based on the positions drafted in the first/second rounds. The red line represents the base odds of winning a championship.


Ok, let's start with the elephant on the graph. Going WR in round 1 and RB in round 2 was clearly the way to go, nearly doubling your odds at a championship. The combination of all the 1st round RB injuries (which were avoided with the 1st round WR) and the performance of the 2nd round RBs, made this the optimal strategy. Speaking of RB injuries, we can see that generally avoiding a 1st round RB was the move this year with positive odds to TE/RB, WR/WR, and WR/TE. Surprisingly, even with all the Running Back injuries, going RB/RB still had plus odds. To me, I think that last point lends credence to this strategy as an optimal one. This year was arguably the worst-case scenario for running backs and yet drafting them in the first 2 rounds still had plus odds. We will have to see how things continue in future years.


Zero RB Strategy

Lollipop graph showing championship odds if you went Zero RB (right) or not (left).


Surprisingly despite all the RB injuries, going Zero-RB still did not seem to be a successful strategy. As a reminder, I am defining zero-RB as any draft that did not take a running back in the first 4 rounds. So overall, going zero-RB is still problematic. Taken with the last plot, I think the argument should be for the anchor RB strategy, getting 1 RB you can count on, but then focusing on WRs, TEs, and QBs. At least for the 2021 season that appeared to be the way to go.


Value Drafting

Line graph of the championship odds based on the total ADP value of the first 6 picks (graph 1) or across the entire draft (graph 2). For both, the red line represents base championship odds.


When we look at draft value (in this case drafting guys before or after their ADP) we can see that while there is a little benefit to grabbing value in the top 6 picks, there is basically no benefit to focusing on value across the entire draft. As with last year, I think this suggests that you should feel confident to go and get your guys and don't worry too much about value drafting.

 
 

Limitations

As with last year, the same limitations apply here. First, this is again 1 year's worth of data. So any conclusions will likely generalize poorly to next year (and in fact given how last year's takeaways came out likely won't). Second, certain players will always skew the results of this analysis (look no further than Mark Andrews in the TE graph). While overall I stand by the approach of ignoring players and focusing on position, it does produce some bugs. Third, I am not controlling for managerial skill. I would not be surprised that the zero-RB strategy gets a bad rap here due to poor managers accidentally ending up with it compared to skilled managers planning for it. Finally, different league settings will require different strategies, so be sure to check out my league setting post from last year here.


Conclusions.

In conclusion, let's look back at our takeaways from last year to see how they did this year:

  1. Don't worry about your draft slot - this is probably still true though if you have your pick, I'd aim for the middle of the draft

  2. Target the second tier of QBs - The second tier wasn't great this year and instead, going another tier down seemed to be the move in 2021.

  3. Don't be afraid to reach for a TE - I'd say mixed, Kelce was worth it as a first-rounder, but the next tier of Waller and Kittle really struggled.

  4. Try to get an RB in the first round - While 1st RBs didn't fair great, the 2nd round was a steal and going 2 RBs to start still had plus odds.

  5. Be wary of the zero RB hype - Even in the perfect zero RB year, it still didn't fare great, instead, I'd focus on an anchor RB strategy, though that anchor may not need to be your 1st round pick

  6. Go get the players you want - This still holds, predraft rankings aren't accurate enough to really worry about value, get the players you want.

Overall some of these takeaways stayed, but a lot of the specific targets seem to have busted. We'll see what next year holds, but the last point is the one that I am firmly standing behind. Get the players you want. It will be more fun for you and there does not seem to be a penalty on reaching for players (within reason).


Just a future programming note, I am planning on doing a 3-year aggregate analysis before the start of the 2022 fantasy season so stay tuned for that. Hopefully, by looking across multiple years we will have some stronger, more generalizable conclusions.


Questions? Comments? Let me know at ac@alexcates.com. Want to read more breakdowns like this? sign up for my newsletter here. Finally, like what I do? Consider supporting me on buy me a coffee.

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