Off to WAR: Superflex, TE-Premium, Dynasty & Championships Above Replacement
Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is a concept that applies to a variety of real-life sports: front offices, analysts, and die-hard fans love to crunch the numbers to measure the value of different players.
WAR has been popularized in fantasy football through the work Jeff Henderson on FantasyPoints.com and featured prominently by Pro Football Focus. WAR in fantasy football builds upon Major League Baseball’s WAR and value over replacement (VORP) concepts conceived by Bill James in the 1980s and a 2018 published article highlighting nflWAR reproducible metrics in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports.
In this article, we’ll discuss WAR looks like in other common (but less standard) fantasy settings and the various strategy implications. All data, unless otherwise noted, is from nflfastR, and you can check out my recent WAR article if you want to dive deeper into the statistic.
It’s the NFL offseason, which means that it is fantasy dynasty season! This format is interesting because it offers a stochastic nature to management: when you roster a player, you are thinking about their production for multiple years in the future, not just this current season. The implications for trading are enormous: how can we value players across positions at different points in their career?
As discussed in this series, WAR is an excellent choice for a common measurement across players. We can sum up WAR from all regular-season games (since 1999) and plot the top players:
- First of all, LaDainian Tomlinson is a deserving winner of the ‘best fantasy player of the millennium’ award. He had four straight seasons with 18+ rushing and receiving touchdowns, including a ridiculous 31-touchdown MVP season. He is nearly 5.0 WAR ahead of the next-best player, Tony Gonzalez, and represents the gold standard for any budding fantasy prospects worthy enough to lay claim to the throne.
- Five of the top ten players are wide receivers: Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson. We’re looking at four major positions – QB, RB, WR, TE – so we would expect 2.5 wideouts to crack the top 10 on average. The fact that they are so over-represented supports the general rule of thumb that WRs should be among the first players off the board. The combination of longevity and relative scarcity at the position (compared to QBs, who have longevity but aren’t as scarce in fantasy) means that you should be valuing wide receivers above all other positions in your league.
- On the flip side, although LT is the number one overall player on this list, he’s the only running back to make the top 12. It’s well-known that NFL running backs generally have a shorter ‘shelf life’, as the position is incredibly physically demanding and rife with contact. This is crucial in dynasty leagues, when the fantasy manager has to be thinking about multiple years down the line. Take great care with running backs: unless you have a superstar of superstars like LT, it’s unlikely that you have a top-tier dynasty player.
Let’s take a closer look at the two other positions, starting with the signal-callers:
Atop this chart is, of course, the stalwarts: Manning, Rodgers, Brees and Brady. It is a bit surprising, perhaps, that the GOAT isn’t #1. He has the most fantasy points overall in this span, but clearly has scored closer to average more often than some of his counterparts. Plus, as Tom will likely tell you, he saves the real magic for the postseason.
It’s pretty ridiculous that Patrick Mahomes, in just four years as a starter, is already knocking on the door of these legends. He’s generated more than half of the WAR of Brady (again, because he scores above average so much more often) despite only being active for 20% of Brady’s career. This isn’t a one-to-one comparison, since WAR can easily be negative, and thus extra years can decrease WAR, but it’s still quite impressive. The implication to me is pretty clear: Mahomes is going to eclipse all of these QBs in terms of WAR in his career, and might re-write the fantasy history books.
There’s something I noticed in this chart that I can’t help but comment on: the top QBs are all pocket-passers, and are largely known for their lack of mobility (although Aaron Rodgers has had some decent output on the ground). We know that rushing points can be sort of a ‘cheat code’ for fantasy quarterbacks: Jalen Hurts was a solid QB1 last season because he was so productive on the ground. Still, it’s possible that taking so many hits from running reduces a player’s longevity, which of course affects their dynasty outlook; we see Cam Newton, one of the best rushing QBs in history, topping out at #9 on this chart. Now, this could be just a function of time: some of the more mobile QBs like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray haven’t had the time yet to eclipse the accumulated WAR of the older signal-callers. Still, it’s something to think about when envisioning the really long term.
Finally, tight ends:
Tony Gonzalez, with his legendary longevity (he saw 99+ targets every year from 1999 to 2013) is the top TE in terms of WAR, and indeed the #2 player overall. Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce battle for second, with Gronk holding a slim lead that Kelce is likely to overcome.
Otherwise, interestingly, Antonio Gates is the only player to contribute significant (4+) WAR; George Kittle and Shannon Sharpe have career contributions just over 2.0, which a great player can eclipse in a single season (Cooper Kupp had nearly 3.0 WAR in 2021). This is a bit surprising: tight end is such a sparse position, so the greats have a massive positional advantage, and it is reflected in WAR. My takeaway from this chart is that, while the top TEs are extremely valuable, there are really only a few. You need a generational talent at the position to really make a significant long-term difference on a dynasty squad. For the record, I believe Kyle Pitts is such a talent and should be treated accordingly. Sadly, I do not believe the same for ‘The Muth’ (Pat Freiermuth).
While ‘default’ leagues only have one quarterback in the lineup, ‘Superflex’ leagues are growing in popularity. The idea is simple: in addition to a standard FLEX spot, where you can start an RB, WR or TE, you also have a Superflex spot, where you can start an RB, WR, TE or a QB. Essentially, you will always be starting a QB: the average QB2 will vastly outscore deep WR options, or whoever else you can slide into a second FLEX spot.
This serves to make the QB position more scarce, which means having a great QB is more valuable. How much more valuable? Let’s take a look at the WAR rankings for the 2021 season using Superflex settings (starting 2 QBs and using the QB1-QB24 average score as ‘replacement level’):
The top two players – Cooper Kupp and Jonathan Taylor – are unchanged, but Josh Allen snuck up to number three overall. Indeed, there are four QBs – Allen, Tom Brady, Justin Herbert and Pat Mahomes – finishing in the top ten, with six more – Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott, Matt Stafford and Joe Burrow – landing between 11 and 20. All told, half of the top 20 WAR players were quarterbacks.
This has a massive implication for drafting in Superflex leagues: QBs should probably be among the first players off of the board. Basically every early-drafted QB this year (save Lamar Jackson, who faced injury issues) landed in the top 20 of all players, with two having top-5 upside. Switching to Superflex means that QB becomes, essentially, the most important position. Depending on your view, this could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing; just be aware of the implications.
Similarly to the idea behind Superflex – make the QB position more relevant – TE Premium leagues are on the up-swing with a similar goal. The idea is to give tight ends 1.5 points per reception, or PPR on steroids, while all other players have half PPR scoring (0.5 points per reception). We can update our scoring system and re-chart the top WAR players:
Unsurprisingly, the top tight ends climb way up the chart: Mark Andrews is now the third most valuable player in fantasy, Travis Kelce the sixth. Gronk and Kittle also managed to sneak into the top 20.
Now, it’s important to note that TE premium certainly turbo-charges the top players at the position, but it isn’t necessarily the ‘tide that raises all boats’ (to quote fellow writer Michael Wenrich in his article on TE Premium). That is, players already getting a ton of receptions will see a huge points bump, but TEs that weren’t really involved don’t share in the spoils. My recent article digs deeper into this concept – as well as how to fix the TE position in general – but here a WAR chart will do. While the top four players at the position have plenty of WAR (more than 1.5 for Andrews and Kelce, nearly 1.0 for Gronk and Kittle) the fall-off is significant from there (just 0.5 WAR or less for the rest of the field). We saw that Superflex made QBs more relevant (perhaps too relevant) and floods the top 20 with quarterbacks. TE premium doesn’t have that effect: the top players certainly climb a lot, but not so with more middling options.
You’ve hopefully enjoyed this WAR series so far, but there might be something nagging you about the metric. We talked about how fantasy is about scoring more than your opponent more than it is scoring lots of points. Similarly, fantasy is about winning a championship more than it is winning lots of games. In this vein, just like positional advantages dictate that not all points are created equal, not all wins are created equal.
We want to think, then, how weekly wins affect the probability of taking home a championship. There are two major factors at play. First, a win in the playoffs is obviously more valuable than a win in the regular season; the latter helps you get to the playoffs, but the former is win or go home. Second, more wins in the regular season can earn you a bye in the playoffs, which of course increases your chances of making the championship. I estimated, via simulation, that you need around 6 wins on average to make the playoffs and 10 wins to secure a bye. This is for a 12-team league full of average teams where 6 make the playoffs and the top 2 get a bye, but the final probabilities shouldn’t change that much for slightly different settings.
We can then calculate the Championships Above Replacement, or ‘CAR’, in a related way. This is similar to the ‘Championship Win Probability Added’ metric in the NBA (and others). For the regular season, we calculate a player’s WAR for each game and run a simulation to determine the probability that a fantasy team with this player (1) makes the playoffs, or eclipses 6 wins and (2) earns a bye, or eclipses 10 wins. This is relatively straightforward because, in the course of a WAR calculation, you obtain the win probability of a fantasy team rostering that specific player. For more on the subject, Scott Barrett wrote a piece entitled Upside Wins Championships last year which gives some great examples comparing investing and fantasy football championships.
For the fantasy playoffs (Weeks 15 – 17 for non-bye teams, weeks 16 -17 for bye teams), we do the same calculation: find the WAR, which gets us the win probability of a fantasy team rostering that player, and use this to run a simulation that estimates the probability of winning a championship. Once we have all of that together, we estimate the CAR as:
CAR = P(Make Playoffs, No Bye) x P(Win all games Weeks 15 – 17) + P(Make Playoffs, Earn Bye) x P(Win all games Weeks 16 – 17) – (1 / 12)
Where P(Make Playoffs, No Bye) is just shorthand for ‘the probability of making the playoffs and not earning a bye’. We are essentially adding the probabilities of (1) getting no bye and winning the championship and (2) getting a bye and winning the championship, which sum to the overall probability of winning a championship. We then subtract by (1/12), or the naive probability of winning a championship for an average team (since there are 12 teams in the league).
Bored yet? The crucial takeaway is that we can calculate a very intuitive result: the probability that an average team with a specific player won a championship. A more familiar metric might be ‘win rate’, used frequently in best ball tournaments. This is the essence of CAR, and here are the leaders in the 2021 season (dashed line is the 1/12 benchmark for an average team).
Cooper Kupp is, of course, still the #1 overall player. If a perfectly average team drafted Cooper Kupp, they saw their championship probability jump from (1 / 12) to (1 / 3). This is a bit sobering: Kupp had one of the best WR seasons of all time, and yet if you rostered him you were still more likely to lose than win. The crucial thing to note, though, is that he tripled your already low probability of winning a ring. We all know that, at the end of the day, there can only be one champion!
The more interesting parts of this chart are how certain players move up and down. Davante Adams shoots up all the way to #2 because of his performance in the fantasy playoffs: 294 yards and 4 TDs from Weeks 15-17. This is what we want: these are the most crucial weeks in fantasy, so it’s good that players get a bump for performing well when the rubber meets the road. On the flip side, Jonathan Taylor, second in WAR, falls to fifth in CAR. He was still good down the stretch, but only scored two TDs in the fantasy playoffs, which knocks his stock down a bit. Still, you had about a 24% of winning a championship with Johnny Taylor, double that of an average team.
My favorite part about this chart is the CIN squad: three Bengals, Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Mixon and Joe Burrow, rocket to the top-12 in CAR. This is, again, because of performances in the fantasy playoffs: the Bengals closed the season with dominant offensive performances against the Ravens and Chiefs, including 50.1 points from Chase in the fantasy championship.
Unfortunately, while this is interesting and intuitive, it’s not necessarily prescriptive, or even super useful. While it tells us that the last few weeks are the season are so important that they shake up the WAR rankings a significant amount, it’s very hard to predict who will be good in those final weeks! Even projecting a few weeks forward is difficult, let along 15 weeks to the end of the season on draft day. You just have no idea which defenses will present soft matchups, or which teams will be playing for NFL playoff berths. You certainly don’t want injury-prone players that go down before the fantasy playoffs, but this is a rule of thumb managers follow regardless.
Alas, at least it is a fun chart to look at! We’ll close with a ‘funny’ chart: the worst CAR players over the year. Ben Roethlisberger is the best of the worst here: you had under a 2% championship probability if you started him all season long.
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