Principles of Value Based Drafting
By Joe Bryant
July 23rd, 2012

Want to dominate your league? Then dominate your draft. This article will show you how to do this with the draft system that serious fantasy owners across the country use.

It's called Value Based Drafting or VBD. Why listen to us about it? Because this is where it started. I introduced VBD to the Fantasy Football world back in 1996 when players like Keyshawn Johnson, Eddie George, and Marvin Harrison had yet to play an NFL down. And for the last 15 years, we've never stopped improving it.

Today, it's the hot ticket among hardcore owners and many sites have attempted to copy it. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Let's just say I'm incredibly flattered. But like most imitators, they're still playing catchup. Stick with us here and let us lay out the key to drafting domination.

The VBD system revolves around two things:

  1. Making detailed statistical projections for every draftable player. Don't worry if you don't feel up to making your own stat projections, we'll provide those for you if you like at Footballguys.com.
  2. Using those detailed stat projections to assign value to players.

It's pretty simple.

But not easy.

The Problem

Here's the trouble with valuing players. It's relatively easy to make a list of the quarterbacks and rank them from 1-40. Same thing with running backs and wide receivers. Tom Brady ranks ahead of Carson Palmer. Ray Rice is higher than Roy Helu. And Julio Jones squeaks past James Jones. These aren't that hard.

If things were simple, you'd hold a separate draft for every position. You'd start off with a quarterback-only draft where every owner could only select a quarterback. Then you'd have a draft for just for running backs. And then for tight ends and so on. That way you'd never have to compare Tom Brady against Rob Gronkowski.

But that's not how it works. When you draft, you're choosing from a wide range of players from all the available positions your league uses. The real world scenario is that at some point in your draft, you're forced to draft one player among the following:

Solid quarterbacks like Tony Romo versus decent running backs like Willis McGahee versus quality wide receivers like Mike Wallace versus top tight ends like Jason Witten.

That's a little tougher situation than deciding if Tom Brady is better than Carson Palmer.

But if you want to dominate your league, it's a situation you'd better be ready for.

With my VBD system you'll be able to finally place a tangible value on these players that makes sense to you. Before VBD, you didn't really know if a quarterback throwing 22 touchdowns and 3,000 yards is more valuable than a running back accumulating nine touchdowns and 1,000 yards, or a wide receiver posting seven touchdowns with 1,100 yards. Now you'll know.

The Principle

Here's the guiding principle of Value Based Drafting: The value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores. His value is determined by how much he outscores his peers at his particular position.

Think about it like this. We are NOT trying to assemble a group of the highest scoring players with no regard to position. If that were the case, the best team would be full of quarterbacks. We are bound by our starting lineups as to the positions we must fill. Our team, consisting of a specified number of players from the specified positions will compete against the other teams consisting of the same number of players from the same positions. Think of it in terms of individual matchups pitting your team against another team, position by position.

Here's an example. For simplicity's sake, let's just say your starting roster is one quarterback, one running back, one wide receiver, and one kicker. In a one-game matchup against your buddy, your quarterback outscores his quarterback 35 to 33 (+2 points). You're up 2. Your running back is outscored by his running back 7 to 12 (-5 points). Now you're down by 3. Your wide receiver outscores his wide receiver 20 to 5 (+15 points). Now you're back up by 12. Your kicker outscores his kicker 22 to 21 (+1 point) This puts you up 13. You win the matchup 84 to 71.

Your Team
His Team
Points Advantage
Cumulative Total
Your QB - 35 pts
His QB - 33 pts
+2 for you
+2 for you
Your RB - 7 pts
His RB - 12 pts
-5 for you
-3 for you
Your WR - 20 pts
His WR - 5 pts
+15 for you
+12 for you
Your PK - 22 pts
His PK - 21 pts
+1 for you
+13 for you

Total Pts = 84 (Your Team) / Total Pts = 71 (His Team)

Listen up now. The point differences at each position, when totaled, will determine the winner. In this case it was a total team difference of 13 points. Simple, right?

Now here's the important question. Let's say you and the owner above are going to throw all eight players back into the pool, have a draft, fill your four-man roster and play that one game over again using the same stats they posted. For the sake of argument, these are the only eight players available to draft (two quarterbacks, two running backs, two wide receivers, and two kickers ) and you already know they're going to post the points I've stated from this one game. You must draft one quarterback, one running back, one wide receiver, and one kicker. Who would you draft first?

It's an absolute no brainer. The wide receiver who scores 20 points MUST be the No. 1 draft pick. The 20-point wide receiver is by far the most valuable player even though he scored less points than both quarterbacks and both kickers. Why? Because he gives you a 15-point advantage at wide receiver while the better quarterback only gives a two-point advantage, the better kicker gives a one-point advantage, and the better running back gives a five-point advantage. The wide receiver's 20 points were much more valuable than the quarterbacks 35 points and the kickers 22 points because of how the player relates to his peers. It's like tic-tac-toe. The game is over once the wide receiver is taken. If it doesn't make sense, actually do the draft and see it yourself. Do not keep reading unless this is crystal clear to you.

When you think about it, this is something you're probably already doing at some level already. For example, it's generally accepted that owners wait until the later rounds to draft a kicker. Why? It's certainly not because they don't score enough points. They often lead the league in scoring. The reason that most kickers are drafted late is that they have low value. And value doesn't necessarily equal points scored.

Kickers earn a low value because there are just so many good ones available. They're a dime-a-dozen as they say. On the other hand, someone like Arian Foster has few peers. Running backs who can post his type of numbers are considerably more rare. Therefore, his value goes up.

This is where the economic concept of scarcity comes into play. For items in demand, the lower the supply, the more valuable they are. On the flip side, when the supply is high and the items are plentiful, the value drops.

With us this far? I'll assume we're on the same page as to how value is determined. Now we're faced with the task of building a draft list based upon those principles.

Here are the seven easy steps applying the principles.

  1. Project stats for each player you think will be drafted in your league.
  2. Determine projected fantasy points based on your scoring system.
  3. Determine your baseline and X numbers.
  4. Sort your list by X numbers overall and by position.
  5. Determine the average draft position of each player.
  6. During the draft, multiply X numbers by need factor.
  7. During the draft, know when to deviate from VBD philosophy.

Each one of these steps could easily merit its own article but for now, here's the summary version for each step.

1. Projecting Stats

The hardest part is the first part. In order for the system to work, it requires a firm set of projected stats for every player in your draft pool. Don't give us grumbling about how unpredictable football players are or the whining that usually follows player projection discussion. If you're going to dominate this draft (that IS your goal, isn't it?), it's absolutely essential that you have all the pertinent stats for your league projected for every player for the entire season. Project these numbers for every player that you expect to be drafted, not just starters.

We always smile when we hear the number one complaint against the VBD system --"It's too haaaaard to make projections." First off, if that's their biggest complaint, we are in pretty good shape. Secondly, we always counter with, "That's fine then. What EXACTLY do you use then to rank your players? Uniform style? Alma Mater? Footwear choice?" Seriously, if you're not going to rank a player by how you expect them to produce fantasy points, you probably are going to be in for a long season.

You're probably doing these projections already, just not this specifically and probably not formally. Everyone thinks that LeSean McCoy will score more points than Michael Turner. Most folks think Matthew Stafford will throw more touchdowns than Sam Bradford (although it might be closer than you think). Everyone expects Sebastian Janikowski to boot some 50+ yard field goals. Those things we know. What you must do with your projections is get a handle on exactly how many more touchdowns you expect a Chris Johnson to post than will a Shonn Greene. It's not enough to say he's better. You must decide how much better.

This becomes critical later because in a real draft, you're not comparing Chris Johnson to Shonn Greene only. You're comparing Chris Johnson to Larry Fitzgerald or Jimmy Graham or Tom Brady. But to see how Chris Johnson compares to them, you must understand exactly how he compares to Shonn Greene and the other running backs first. You'll see why in a moment.

Bottom line, do not pass go until you've got stat projections for every player.

Again, we know this is hard. And it's REALLY hard to do this with accuracy. The good news is we've done all this for you at Footballguys.com. We've loaded our VBD Excel Application and Draft Dominator software with our latest detailed stat projections. And of course, you're encouraged to tweak any or all of our projections if you like.

2. Projecting Fantasy Points

Okay, stats are projected, now what? Easy. Now you must run these raw stats through your scoring system and come up with a projected number of fantasy points you expect each player to produce.

In other words, let's say you play in a league where quarterbacks earn four points for passing touchdowns and one point for every 30 yards passing. If you have Peyton Manning projected for 30 touchdowns and 3,000 yards, Manning would project out to score 220 fantasy points (30 TDs x 4 = 120) + (3,000 yards / 30 = 100) = 220 projected fantasy points. Do this for every player. Rank each player BY POSITION from highest to lowest number of projected fantasy points. For right now, keep them separated by position.

One thing you'll notice is that hype often doesn't equate to fantasy points. And fantasy points are what wins championships. You'll often see that the attention and hype a player receives doesn't always match his actual production, and most every league I've been in awards points based on actual production, not hype. Where this especially comes into play is with unique scoring rules. If you have a league that heavily rewards running backs for receptions, you may be surprised to see how valuable guys like Chris Johnson, Pierre Thomas, and Dexter McCluster really are in your league.

It's important to remember that your scoring system is what it is. There aren't good scoring rules or bad scoring rules. They're just there. You can create whatever crazy scoring system you want and it really won't matter. You still run the players through the system and see what kind of points the projected stats generate. In fact, I'd say weird scoring systems would play to your advantage using my VBD system as you'll have an advantage over an owner that's playing by the conventional wisdom while you'll be working from reality.

3. Determining Your Baseline and X Numbers

The next step is determining your baseline. What you're looking for in the baseline is a player (or number) that you'll compare all the players at that position against. Think back to the example in the beginning using the eight players in a draft. This is where the peer pressure comes into play. Remember the goal is to distance yourself from the competition. And you do that by selecting players who outscore their peers, not necessarily the players who score a ton of points as you fill a roster with a specified number of players at specified positions.

So what we need is a way to measure each player against his peers. We do that by setting a baseline player for each position to serve as a measuring point. Each position player will be either better or worse than this position's baseline player.

There are many ways to establish a baseline. Some people like to use the worst starter as their baseline. In other words, in a 12-team league that starts one quarterback, the No. 12 quarterback would be the worst starter. Another option is to use average starter. In this method, assuming the same 12-team league starting one quarterback, you'd take the average of the top-12 quarterbacks.

In our opinion, neither of these choices is the ideal baseline. My Footballguys partner David Dodds has done outstanding work in this area and he's found that the best baseline is based on the number of players that will be taken at a given point in a draft. We personally use 100 players as this basis, but you can play around with other points if you like. After 12 years, we've settled on using 100 players for most leagues. A rather complex formula has been developed to estimate how many players by position will be taken at the 100th pick of the draft, but suffice it to say it is based on scoring criteria, number of teams, number of required starters, number of rounds of the draft, and number of flex positions.

There are three easy ways to calculate the number by position that will be selected based on all of these factors.

  1. Look at last year's draft and count the positions.
  2. Compare to a mock draft / average draft list with similar league structure.
  3. Let the VBD App calculate this for you.

Using our baseline, we need to value each player. As stated, we do that by measuring how much better or worse we expect that player to perform when measured against the baseline player at his position. Keep in mind, at this point we're still talking about keeping all the positions in their own lists. We only care right now about how one quarterback compares to another quarterback.

In our sample league consisting of 18 rounds and 12 teams with the following starters (one quarterback, two running backs, three wide receivers, one tight end, one place kicker, and one defense), our program tells us approximately the following positions (on average) will be taken in the first 100 picks:

  • 15 quarterbacks
  • 36 running backs
  • 38 wide receivers
  • 8 tight ends
  • 2 defenses
  • 1 place kicker.
  • These represent our baseline players for each position.

    Here's how to get the X number. Simply compare the fantasy points each player will score to the corresponding baseline player. In our example, let's assume that our 15th quarterback is Jay Cutler. He will be our baseline, and we project that Cutler will score 150 fantasy points. To get the X number, we subtract Cutler's fantasy points from the baseline. In this case, those numbers are the same number so you get 150 (baseline) - 150 (Cutler's fantasy points) = an X number of 0.

    All players above him will have a positive X number based on the difference in fantasy points of that player and the baseline player.

    Examples:

  • Let's say Tom Brady is projected to score 200 fantasy points.
  • 200 (Brady's fantasy points) - 150 (baseline from Cutler) = X number of 50
  • Brady's X number would be 50
  • Let's say Alex Smith is projected to score 100 fantasy points
  • 100 (Smith's fantasy points) - 150 (baseline from Cutler) = X number of -50.
  • Smith's X number would be negative 50
  • In essence, that X number tells you how that player stacks up against the other players at his position. It tells you how about the peer pressure that player sees. Tom Brady with an X number of 50 means he is 50 points better than the baseline. Alex Smith with an X number of -50 means he is 50 points worse than the baseline. This X number reflects their value.

    4. Sorting your X Numbers

    Up to this point, we have just lists of players at each position. Pretty much the standard fare cheatsheets you see everywhere. But as we said earlier, there's a problem with position lists: You need more than position lists when you're choosing a player from a pool that contains multiple positions. You need to know how all the different players are valued not just among their position peers but among each other. We do that by sorting the X numbers.

    It's a very simple matter of throwing all the players (and their X numbers) in one heap and ranking by the X number. What you'll see will likely surprise you. Depending on your league, don't be shocked to see some players sort out much higher than conventional wisdom says.

    You'll most likely find that your kickers all have fairly low X numbers and are usually bunched tightly. This reinforces what you already know. Even though they may score a lot of points, they're all just about the same and you can afford to wait and snag a good one later. If you're in a league that requires a starting tight end, you may find that guys like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are even more valuable than you already thought. If you're in a league that has an unusually high starting requirement, like starting two quarterbacks or three wide receivers, you may find that the top players at those positions are more valuable than expected.

    And there you have it. All the players are ranked by their X number which means they're ranked by their value. A key point is to understand what the list is telling you. It's ranking the players by their value, or where they deserve to be drafted. This is not necessarily the order in which you should draft them (see items 6-8 below).

    5. Determine the Average Draft Position of All the Players

    Now you have a ranking of players by value. But that's not enough. When you're drafting, the goal is to maximize value with every single pick. And to do that, you need to know where the other owners in your league are likely to draft each player.

    In other words, your info may show that Jimmy Graham is your No. 8 overall ranked player by value. But all the Average Draft Position data (ADP) shows that Graham is being drafted at No. 20 in leagues across the country, you don't need to spend the No. 8 pick on him. You could likely wait until the second round to draft him. In the same way, if your VBD ranking shows Graham as the No. 15 overall player and ADP shows he's being drafted at No. 8 overall, that means you're likely not going to be drafting Graham this year.

    An excellent source for average draft value is our ADP on Footballguys.com. We compile a huge number of drafts by date and allow you to customize a list based on a few variables. If this sounds like too much work, do not fret - our VBD Excel App and the Draft Dominator software contain all of this data.

    Remember that your X numbers represent worth to you. But if you draft everyone at worth, your draft will be average. The goal is to squeeze value with every single pick. In other words, with the 24th pick of the draft, you'd like to be drafting a guy that is in your top-15 overall. And that is done by keeping a pulse on what an average draft is likely to do.

    6. Multiply X Values by Need Factor to Determine Relative Value

    As the draft develops, you need to be aware of the differences between absolute need and relative need. This is another area where my partner David Dodds has done cool work. With your first-round pick, absolute need and relative need are the same. You need all positions equally. But as the draft continues, this is not the case as you start to fill out your roster. If you start two running backs and you have taken two running backs with your first three picks, it stands to reason that your immediate need is likely not at running back. You'll likely want to veer from your VBD list if it's showing your next pick should be a running back.

    Again for simplicity, we are going to give a formula that should work for most leagues. To determine the need factor of a position at any time in the draft, use the following table:

    If you have...
    If you start 1
    If you start 2
    If you start 3
    If you start 4
    If you start 5
    0 of a position
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    1 of a position
    Need factor = 0.8
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    2 of a position
    Need factor = 0.6
    Need factor = 0.8
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    3 of a position
    Need factor = 0.4
    Need factor = 0.6
    Need factor = 0.8
    Need factor = 1.0
    Need factor = 1.0
    4 of a position
    Need factor = 0.2
    Need factor = 0.4
    Need factor = 0.6
    Need factor = 0.8
    Need factor = 1.0

    So as an example, if you have a quarterback already and you start only one, then the need factor is 0.8 for your next quarterback. Multiplying this need factor by the X number will yield the relative X value for that player for your fantasy team.

    This is a major distinction from previous written works regarding Value Based Drafting. It attempts to translate mathematically what we have all done in drafts. If you have three quarterbacks on your roster, you likely aren't going to keep drafting quarterbacks if you can only start one each week regardless of whether there is a player available that has a very high value on your list. Your need for a quarterback is different when you have three already on your roster. . Additional quarterbacks represent value still (for trades, etc), but for your particular team it is reduced (based on the table above). Most serious VBD owners have always done this intuitively, but now we're putting the math behind it.

    7. Know When to Deviate from VBD Principles

    One of the biggest misconceptions with value-based principles is that you should use them for the entire draft. This simply isn't true. Sure you would like to get value throughout your draft, but after approximately half of your roster is filled, you will generally end up with your best team by using your position lists to address your unique needs. Always look at the best available player by position, but also make sure that person fills bye week needs, etc for your roster.

    This includes (but is not limited to) the following not based on X Value:

  • Covering bye weeks
  • Handcuffing the backup to a key player on your roster
  • Looking for favorable match ups for certain tough weeks
  • For these reasons, we believe the perfect draft will often abandon strict VBD drafting after all baselines have been passed (this is generally around Pick 120 or so). What exactly does this mean? It just means that later in the draft, you'll likely draft from your positional lists and not from your overall list.

    Summary

    If you only remember three things, make it these three:

    1. The object of the game is not to score a ton of points. The object of the game is to outscore your opponent. You must fill a roster with a specified number of players at specified positions. The surest way to outscore your opponent is to build a team of players that outscore their peers. The players who most distance themselves from the other players at their respective positions are therefore the most valuable. Remember the eight-player draft example where you can't lose after drafting the 20-point wide receiver.
    2. Factors such as the specific number of teams, starting lineup requirements, frozen players, and scoring system for your league dramatically affect the values of each player. These factors can cause the same player in two different leagues to have dramatically different values.
    3. If this seems like a lot of work (and it is) we will do all of the work for you at Footballguys.com with our VBD Excel Application and our Draft Dominator software.

    Think about these principles. Play around with them and see how they work for you. Once you understand the concepts behind the Value Based Draft system, you'll be well on your way to dominating your league.

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