In 2016, Ezekiel Elliott had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history. Early on, the fantasy community established him alongside David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell as the clear-cut top-3 fantasy assets for the 2017 season. And then news started dribbling out about a potential suspension.
In a cycle that's rife with actual news, the will-he-or-won't-he suspension saga surrounding Elliott has dominated oxygen in a way that few stories could, with weekly breaking news alerts saying "No news to report." Today the saga reached new heights, with Cris Carter of all people suggesting the league had made up its mind and would hand down a decision within 48 hours, with the NFL responding that, no, it hadn't.
Current speculation has Elliott's potential suspension at four games using Tom Brady's Deflategate suspension as a precedent. But really, nobody should be surprised if the suspension winds up being two games, or one game, or six games, or zero games, instead.
Amid all of this uncertainty, one thing is for sure: given Elliott's cost and his ability, a lot of people at the top of the draft this year are going to wind up with some regrets. We just don't know yet if they'll regret picking him or passing on him.
Given the stakes involved, it becomes increasingly important that we assign the right value to Ezekiel Elliott for 2017. But how do we value a player who may or may not miss the beginning of the season?
A parallel in Rob Gronkowski
In 2013, Footballguy Chase Stuart wrote about Rob Gronkowski, who had undergone offseason surgery and was likely to miss the beginning of the year. Stuart wrote that even if Gronkowski saw his total production drop, he would still be more valuable than other tight ends who produced comparable statistics because he got his points in fewer total games.
Gronkowski wound up being a fortuitous choice; he played seven games in 2013 and finished with 39 receptions, 592 yards, and 4 touchdowns, good for 83.2 points and a 14th-place finish in standard scoring. But the 24th-place tight end that year, Jeff Cumberland, averaged 4.25 fantasy points per game. If you assume the Gronkowski owner could have started a Jeff Cumberland type in the nine games Gronkowski missed, he would have gotten 121.5 points from the position overall, which would have been good for a 6th-place fantasy finish, instead.
With all due respect to Chase Stuart, while his analysis is insightful and undoubtedly accurate, it also requires doing things like projecting every tight end in the NFL. What if we're looking for something quicker and easier? In an evolving situation like Ezekiel Elliott's, how do we stay nimble enough to evolve alongside it?
The Timing of the Missed Games
A traditional fantasy season will run 16 weeks, from week 1 to week 16. Because of bye weeks, most fantasy players will play at most 15 games. If we assume that Ezekiel Elliott gets a four-game suspension, that means he's going to miss 4/15ths, or 26.67%, of the fantasy season.
But this absolutely should not be taken to mean that a 4-game suspension reduces his value by 26.67%, because which games he misses is important, too. In fact, let me walk you through a quick thought experiment.
Imagine there's a 10-team league out there where all teams score perfectly randomly. Let's say that they just roll eight 20-sided dice and whatever they get is how many points they score that week. If we pick a team at random, that team's chance of winning the title should be 10%; there are 10 teams, one of them will win the title, all of them are equally likely, so the odds are 1-in-10.
Now, imagine I picked a team at random and also told you that this team had the highest score in week 1. What are the title odds? A guaranteed win in week 1 makes this team slightly more likely to make the playoffs, so let's just guess and say that the odds are now 12%. This almost certainly overestimates the impact, but it should give us a conservative baseline for what's to come.
One more. Let's say I picked a team at random and told you that this team had the highest score in week 16. What are this team's title chances? If the team is in the championship game it is guaranteed to win it, so the team's chances of winning the championship are the same as its chances of making the championship-- in this case, two out of ten teams make the championship, so its chances are 20%.
If a weekly high score in week 1 increases your chances by 2%, while a weekly high score in week 16 increases your chances by 10%, then it's fair to say that week 16 is five times more important than week 1, at least for the purposes of winning a fantasy championship. And again, this is premised on a 2% estimate that's probably a bit high; the real disparity might be greater still.
If we repeat this thought experiment for every week, we find that for a league that sends six teams to the playoffs and awards the top two squads with a bye, week 14 is 2.5 times as valuable as any week from 1-13, while weeks 15 and 16 are both 5 times as valuable.
If each regular season week is worth 1 point of value, week 14 is worth 2.5 points, and weeks 15 and 16 are worth 5 points, then that means a player potentially has 24.5 "value points" on his schedule... and more than half of that comes from the fantasy playoffs alone!
Using this framework, if Ezekiel Elliott misses four regular-season games to suspension, he's losing out on 4 out of 24.5 "value points", which means he's only losing out on 16.3% of his pre-suspension value, not 26.67%.
How To Value Suspended Players
So now we have a quick and conservative way to estimate how much value a player loses if they're suspended to begin the season. If a player is going to miss X games, he will lose (X / 24.5)% of his value. For a four-game suspension, that's 16.3%. For a two-game suspension, that's 8.2%. And so on, and so forth. We also know how valuable Elliott was before the specter of suspension was raised; he was a consensus top-3 fantasy draft pick.
How do we combine this knowledge? With one of the very first tools in the Footballguys suite, the trusty pick value calculator!
Let's again keep things conservative and assume that Elliott's value absent a suspension is on par with the 3rd pick of the draft. With a four-game suspension, we estimate he will lose 16.3% of that value. What pick is 16.3% less valuable than the 3rd pick of the draft? According to the pick value calculator, that's around pick 8, (16% less valuable), or pick 9, (18% less valuable).
Okay, let's assume we're dealing with a longer suspension. If Elliott misses six games, then he's forfeiting 24.5% of his value this season. That would put him in the range of pick 11, (-23%), or pick 12, (-26%).
Now, estimating value using the pick value calculator isn't going to be perfect. But it's a shockingly easy hack that will prove to be shockingly accurate, and I'm all about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
And the best part of this method is you can customize it however you like. Let's say that you believe Elliott was overrated even without the suspension talk, and you would have taken him around pick 5 instead. Well, you can still figure out what he's worth to you! Assuming a 4-game suspension again, feeding in an initial value of 1.05 and looking for about a 16% reduction, Elliott should now be worth between pick 10 and pick 11.
Let's say you think Elliott was underrated and you were originally prepared to take him with the 1st pick in the draft if you had to. From there, a 16.3% value reduction will land Elliott roughly around pick 6 or pick 7 of the draft.
Let's say you don't believe in my fancy math saying playoff weeks are more valuable. That's fine, too! As I mentioned, if all games are equal in value, missing four games will cost Elliott 26.67% of his season; using an initial value of pick 1.03, that should drop him to around pick 12 or 13.
Let's say the ruling comes out tomorrow and the NFL has decided to ban Elliott for the entire fantasy regular season with an unprecedented 12-game suspension. Elliott is now losing 49% of his value (12 / 24.5), and now he's worth selecting somewhere around pick 27.
Wrapping It Up
Again, this method isn't 100% perfect. It's only giving us a starting point. If you believe a suspension might impact Elliott's conditioning, for instance, you might want to downgrade him a bit more at the end of the process. If you think your league competition is pretty weak and you're more likely to make the playoffs, maybe you want to upgrade Elliott a little bit since losing him in the regular season doesn't hurt you even that much.
Similarly, this analysis ignores the carrying cost of burning a roster spot on someone who isn't helping you at the time. In leagues with deeper benches, this will be negligible. In leagues with shallow benches, however, this is a real and significant cost, and Elliott will need to be downgraded further to reflect this.
But the key is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. More than just a means of valuing Ezekiel Elliott, this is a fast and powerful tool to value any player who will open the season missing any amount of time. (Though if you're applying it to a player who will miss the beginning of the season to injury or substance abuse suspension, please remember that both of those factors have a risk of recurrence and so will warrant further downgrade afterward.)
But any time you want to ask yourself how much missing the first X weeks of the season would hurt a player, just open the Footballguys pick value calculator, enter in an estimate of their pre-injury / pre-suspension ADP, and try to find the new pick that is (X / 24.5)% less valuable. And within 2 minutes you can make on-the-fly adjustments to your board while your leaguemates are all still fumbling around trying to figure out what the heck just happened.