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Yearly Trends in VBD

A historical look at VBD in fantasy football over the last 23 years

The default Footballguys scoring system and starting requirements are as follows:

  • A twelve-team league where each team starts one QB, two RBs, three WRs, one TE, one PK, and one Team Defense/ST.
  • Passing: 1 point per 20 yards, 4 points per TD, -1 point per interception thrown
  • Rushing/Receiving: 1 point per 10 yards, 6 points per TD

Since many of us play in PPR leagues (and Footballguys also publishes PPR rankings), I've decided to slightly modify the traditional scoring system and assign 0.5 points per reception. I then went back and examined the VBD curves for each position since 1990.

For those unfamiliar with VBD, you can read Joe Bryant's landmark article here. The guiding principle is that the value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores but by how much he outscores his peers at his particular position. This means that in a league that starts 12 quarterbacks, each quarterback's VBD score is the difference between his fantasy points and the fantasy points scored by the 12th best quarterback. The cut-offs at the other positions are 12, 24, and 36, for tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers, respectively.

The NFL in 2013 won't closely resemble how the league looked in 1990, but what does that mean for fantasy football? To determine that, we need to see if VBD has evolved with the rest of the football statistics. Let's start with a graph displaying number of fantasy points scored by the last starter at each position since 1990. As you can see, quarterback scoring has risen significantly over the last two decades, and the production of the 12th tight end has nearly doubled over that time period.

A graph of the points scored by the worst starter at each position (Please connect to the internet to view images inside articles.)

Conversely, we don't see much inflation when it comes to running backs and wide receivers. In 2000 and 2002, the 24th running back cleared 180 fantasy points, but as teams pass more frequently and use multiple running backs more often, the stud running back era is behind us. You might think that we'd see a huge rise in the production of the 36th ranked wide receiver -- especially with 0.5 PPR -- but that hasn't been the case, either. While teams may be passing more frequently, tight ends and third and fourth wide receivers are seeing larger pieces of the pie, too.

Let's break down the trends at each position.


While quarterback production has significantly risen, the rising tide has lifted all ships. In 1991, Warren Moon was the top fantasy quarterback with 4,690 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. That gave him 303 fantasy points, which would have ranked 13th in 2012. Eli Manning scored 300 fantasy points last year and ranked 15th among quarterbacks. When it comes to increased production among quarterbacks, that hasn't made quarterbacks any more valuable than they used to be.

The graph below shows the VBD number -- i.e., the number of fantasy points above QB12 -- for the number one quarterback (in dark blue), the fourth best quarterback (in blue), the seventh best quarterback (in light blue), and the tenth best quarterback (in very light blue) over the last 23 years. As you can see, there are lots of spikes in the data, but no general upward trend:

A graph of the comparison of VBD at the quarterback position  (Please connect to the internet to view images inside articles.)

Cam Newton was QB4 last year, and he actually produced fewer points of VBD than the 4th best quarterback in 1991 (Mark Rypien). With over a dozen quarterbacks producing 300 fantasy point seasons -- and another dozen that have the potential to do so -- it takes a historically great season for quarterbacks to stand out as elite fantasy players in modern times. Tom Brady in 2007 and Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in 2011 did just that, but no quarterback stood out in 2012. In fact, Brees finished as the top quarterback last season, but his 104 points of VBD were just the sixth highest of the last 23 quarterbacks to lead the league in fantasy points.

2013 Takeaway: There are lots of elite fantasy quarterback options this year. As a general rule, don't be blinded by the fact that the top quarterbacks are putting up monster numbers; they're no more valuable than they used to be, and you can still find valuable quarterbacks well after the sixth round. If you play in a flex league or one that starters more than six RBs/WRs/TEs, the value of each quarterback is further depressed.

Running Backs

What about at running back? The next graph shows the VBD number for the top running back (in red), the 5th best running back (in dark red), the 10th best running back (in purple), the 15th best running back (in blue), and the 20th best running back (in light blue) since 1990.

A graph of the comparison of VBD at the running back position  (Please connect to the internet to view images inside articles.)

The highest peak on the chart belongs to the 2006 version of LaDainian Tomlinson. Even when Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,000 yards, they couldn't match Tomlinson's production. It's worth noting that no player has rushed for 20 touchdowns over the last six years, but Tomlinson (28 in 2006), Shaun Alexander (27 in 2005), and Priest Holmes (27 in 2003) easily cleared that number in what now feels like a different era of fantasy football. The end of the stud era has generally made the No. 1 draft pick less valuable, but the running back position hasn't lost value overall. The 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th best running backs were all more productive in 2012 than those players were, on average, from 1990 to 2011 (116 points of VBD in 2012 to 108 average points, 76 to 65, 43 to 39, and 36 to 18 for the 2012 running backs relative to the average for the 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th best RBs from 1990 to 2011, respectively).

Consider this: the gap between RB1 and RB20 was, on average, 189 points between 1990 and 2006, but has shrunk to just 164 and 157 points in each of the last two years. One reason for this might be that running back by committee has prevented running backs from producing monster numbers but also kept them healthy. Last year, 18 of the top 24 fantasy running backs played in 16 games; from 2000 to 2007, only 13.25 of the top 24 running backs, on average, played in every game. This will be something to track going forward: while 16 backs stayed completely healthy in 2010, too, only 10 of the top 24 running backs in 2011 played in 16 games.

2013 Takeaway: Taking a running back with your first pick is no longer automatic, but don't let people convince you that the position has lost too much value. Getting strong production from your running backs remains as important now as it was a decade ago, and the significant dropoff at the position makes getting two top-15 running backs very valuable.

Wide Receivers

Let's move on to wide receivers. The next graph shows the VBD number for the top wide receiver (in red), the 6th best wide receiver (in dark red), the 12th best wide receiver (in purple), the 18th best wide receiver (in blue), and the 24th best wide receiver (in light blue) since 1990.

A graph of the comparison of VBD at the wide receiver position  (Please connect to the internet to view images inside articles.)

The spread between the VBD values is much greater among the top running backs than the top receivers. Even with a lower baseline (i.e., WR36 vs. RB24), receivers rarely produce more than 150 points of VBD (in the last five years, Calvin Johnson in 2011 is the only player to do so). Running backs drop off quickly -- even when only 24 start in your fantasy league -- which is why there has historically been a premium on the position. I don't think that has changed.

What's incredible is how steady wide receiver production has been year-to-year. Over the 23-year period, WR6 averaged 94 points of VBD, WR12 averaged 65 points, WR18 averaged 44 points, and WR24 averaged 27 points. In 2011, those numbers were 93, 64, 65, and 26. There has been spikes in the data, but those are likely due to random variation. It's tempting to think wide receivers have become more valuable in fantasy football, but that's really not the case. WR36 will generally catch 55-60 passes, pick up 750 yards, and score five touchdowns. Those numbers don't sound overly impressive, but that's because tight end production has really skyrocketed.

2013 Takeaway: Unless you play in full PPR leagues or flex leagues, there's little reason to place more emphasis on wide receivers than you did five, ten, or even fifteen years ago. The modern passing game hasn't changed VBD values.

Tight Ends

The tight end chart shows the same information as it did for quarterbacks: the top tight end (in dark blue), the fourth best tight end (in blue), the seventh best tight end (in light blue), and the tenth best tight end (in very light blue). Take a look at the dark blue valley in 2003:

A graph of the comparison of VBD at the tight end position  (Please connect to the internet to view images inside articles.)

If you just woke up from a ten-year nap, you'd probably be shocked that so many tight ends ae productive (the news that Tony Gonzalez was still one of them could be handled with a shrug). In 2003, the No. 3 fantasy tight end was Todd Heap, with 57 catches, 693 yards, and 3 touchdowns. He scored 118 fantasy points, well behind Shannon Sharpe's 156, who was well behind Gonzalez's 187.

Gonzalez scored 188 fantasy points in 2012, which just proves that the man is related to Father Time. But 118 fantasy points wouldn't even crack the top 12 last year, and that was the third best player at the position just ten years ago.

You can see the huge spike caused by Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski in 2011; while both came back to earth last season, I think the era of the stud tight end isn't going anywhere. What you find at tight end, though, is that the middle pack players aren't necessarily becoming more valuable. Like at quarterback, increased production has helped out everyone. In fact, the average production by TE1, TE4, TE7, and TE11 over the last five years has been nearly identical to the average production of those players from 1990 to 2007. In 2011, Graham and Gronkoski were able to beat "tight end inflation" -- their numbers were astronomical, so it didn't matter that the baseline kept rising.

2013 Takeaway: The top tight end could be worth a first round pick, but it will require a monster season. The top tight ends have generally been underrated when it comes to average draft position, but there's no need to reach early to take a mid-level tight end.