Best Ball Strategy: How Best Ball is Changing in 2023 (Fantasy Football)
The landscape in best ball is changing…a lot. Think back to three or four years ago before best ball grew in popularity and before Underdog Fantasy released Best Ball Mania. Many fantasy players didn’t even play in best ball leagues. Now? Underdog is offering $3 million to first place in Best Ball Mania IV and $75K to first place in The Puppy. Over on DraftKings, they’re hosting a Milly Maker GPP style tournament, and on Drafters, they’re offering $250K to first place in their big $1 million tournament.
And the thing is, these contests are filling up quickly with drafts taking place around the clock. It’s a fun format and one that invites many angles to be successful – roster construction, player takes, ADP value, team stacking and game stacking are all things to consider when drafting best ball teams.
With that in mind and with how many people are playing best ball now versus let’s say 2018-2020, there’s arguably less of an edge in this format for diehard drafters than there used to be. It’s not to say that there isn’t an edge; it’s just not as obvious as it was a few years ago. The field is getting sharper, and because of that, average draft position (ADP) is a lot more efficient in 2023 than it was even back in 2020 and 2021. So, with that landscape changing year over year, how can we adjust our strategy to maximize our returns? That’s the goal of this article – identify what’s changed in best ball and how to approach it.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be referring to ADP on Underdog Fantasy, which is accurate as of 5/13/23.
Here are four things I’ve noticed so far:
1. Elite QBs are going earlier than ever.
Think back to simpler times. The year was 2022 – Jalen Hurts was coming off the board in the 6th Round, Lamar Jackson was available in Round 5, and Justin Fields was taken after Round 10. Now? If you want an elite QB, expect to pay a premium.
As of the middle of May, eight QBs are going in the top 60 picks on Underdog. In other words, almost all of the projected top 10 fantasy QBs are coming off the board in the first five rounds. Oh, and Anthony Richardson? He could be joining this group soon. As of May 10, Richardson’s ADP is 84.9 overall as the QB10. In the last two weeks, he’s leap frogged Tua Tagovailoa and Dak Prescott in ADP. It would not be surprising to see A Rich settle in as a top 75 selection in a month or two.
In order to compare 2023’s ADP to previous seasons, I went back and looked at ADP from 2020-2022. I listed how many QBs were being taken in the top 60 (Round 5 or earlier) selections in those seasons.
|Year||Number of QBs in Rounds 1-5|
It’s very clear – the field is on the elite QBs this season. After all, it’s hard to poke holes in the idea that you need one of these elite options to truly get a difference maker at the position. Last summer, I wrote an article about Optimal Roster Construction on Underdog Fantasy. In that article, I noted that the data from Best Ball Mania I and II was consistent in two areas:
- Teams that rostered 2 or 3 QBs had the highest advance rate and were most likely to finish in the top 10%
- Teams that took at least one QB before Round 10 had a much higher advance rate than teams who punted the position and waited until the double digit rounds to select a QB
Conceptually, that makes a ton of sense. The elite QBs in fantasy have a massive ceiling while the pocket passers going in Rounds 13-18 simply can’t touch that ceiling.
I took it one step further in that article by looking at when specifically in the first 10 rounds it was optimal to take your QB1. The data from the previous seasons found that teams who selected QB before Round 4 had a lower advance rate than teams who took QB1 in Rounds 5-10. Here’s the data for those curious, which is from the Rotoviz Advance Rate Explorer:
In previous seasons, being the guy or gal in your draft to take Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen as the QB1 was detrimental to your advance rate. It’s not because these guys were “bad” picks. They smashed, of course. Allen finished as the QB1 in both 2020 and 2021 while Mahomes finished as the QB4 in both of those seasons. The reason they weren’t excellent advance rate guys in those particular seasons is because of the fact that QBs with just as high of a ceiling were going later.
This season – it’s simply not possible to identify ceiling at the QB position in the double digit rounds. So, how do we adjust our approach to the QB position for 2023?
When trying to answer this question, I think it’s important to have a specific understanding of the rules, particularly in Best Ball Mania IV. To advance the playoffs, you need to finish in the top two of your 12 person league. From there, it’s 1-of-16 teams from Week 15, and 1-of-16 teams from Week 16. A year ago, it was 1-of-10 for Week 15, and 1-of-16 in Best Ball Mania III. In other words, it’ll require a higher percentile score in Week 15 this year to advance to the semi-finals.
With this in mind, knowing that we’ll need players with a path to ceiling in Weeks 15-17 to actually take home the money that matters, I think leaning into this second tier of QBs with a lower opportunity cost that still have paths to a ceiling is an approach to consider.
I’m not saying to completely fade the Round 2 QBs (Allen, Mahomes, Hurts), especially if you’re drafting a ton of teams this summer, but I think these guys going in Rounds 3-9 are priority targets for their combination of reduced opportunity cost and associated ceiling that isn’t that far off of the guys going ahead of them. Another thing to consider with this approach is the 2 vs. 2 player combinations that are possible in these rounds. Let’s look at a specific example:
If taking QB in Round 2, you’re passing on some elite WR and RB options, and because wide receivers specifically are getting pushed up the board this year (more on that in a second), the WR talent and players with elite ceilings drops off rapidly after about Round 5 or 6 based on current ADP. For that reason, I find myself leaning into this second tier of QBs and being slightly underweight the field on the Round 2 elite QBs.
2. WRs are being pushed up the board.
Remember when the first 24 picks in a best ball draft were filled with running backs? Let’s look at the ADP from August of 2020 just to get a sense of what the market was like a few years ago.
Looks like an Arthur Smith type draft doesn’t it? My goodness. Just a few years ago 14 RBs were going off the board in the top 20 picks. Now? There’s only five RBs going in the first 20 picks – Christian McCaffrey, Bijan Robinson, Austin Ekeler, Jonathan Taylor, Saquon Barkley.
The field is coming around to the idea that you can’t just win with quantity at WR – you need quality, too. We’re seeing that reflected in ADP in 2023 versus years past. The archetype of WR that used to be available in Rounds 6-10 are now going in Rounds 3-5. Because of that, the quality of WR seems to drop off a cliff after about pick 100 (give or take).
Here are the names currently going from picks 85 to 108 (Rounds 8-9):
- Jahan Dotson
- Quentin Johnston
- Zay Flowers
- Michael Thomas
- Courtland Sutton
- Jameson Williams (Suspended first 6 games)
- Rashod Bateman
- Odell Beckham Jr.
For drafters investing in other positions early in the draft, there’s a realistic possibility that some are looking at this range for their WR4, or even worse, their WR3. On a platform where we’re required to start 3 WRs weekly (and some weeks 4 WRs with the flex), that is absolutely terrifying.
Last season, teams that drafted the same number of RBs and WRs OR drafted fewer WRs than RBs had the lowest advance rates, according to Underdog’s data. In addition, teams who allocated more draft capital into the WR position had better advance rates than teams who invested in RBs early and often.
The same was true in 2021. In that season, teams that drafted 6-9 WRs all had an advance rate north of 16.5%, well above the expected baseline. Furthermore, teams that drafted at least two WRs in the first five rounds in Best Ball Mania II had a substantially better advance rate than teams who passed on WR early.
Moreover, 4for4’s T.J. Hernandez found that this is a pretty consistent trend in Best Ball Mania data going all the way back to 2020.
Three seasons of @UnderdogFantasy Best Ball Mania data suggests you should have your fourth WR by Round 10 but those that have loaded up on WRs by Round 7 have had a distinct advantage pic.twitter.com/GZ5pAtKugv
— TJ Hernandez (@TJHernandez) May 16, 2023
Drafters are certainly now on team ‘Early WR’ in 2023 after three seasons of data telling us this is probably correct. This is a spot where I’m more inclined not to zig while others zag given how strong the data is and how much the WR talent falls off a cliff right around Rounds 8-9. My goal in most drafts is to leave the first eight rounds with 4+ WRs. By avoiding earlier round WRs, you’re making a bet that a lot of these guys fail, and while that’s certainly possible in any season, historically, we know the WRs hit ADP expectations at a much higher rate than RBs.
3. We need to re-think the ‘RB Dead Zone’
The RB Dead Zone has historically referred to the low hit rate associated with running backs who have gone in Rounds 3-6. In most seasons, we see RBs fly off the boards early and often, which creates lower quality RBs being pushed up the board into the aforementioned rounds out of necessity. In previous seasons, this would create a clear edge for drafters where we could prioritize WRs in Rounds 3-6, resulting in much better advance rates.
However, now that WRs are being pushed up the board and fewer RBs are going early, we’re seeing a massive shift in the quality of RBs that are available in the traditional “dead zone.”
Let’s compare ADP from 2020 to current 2023 ADP, specifically looking at Rounds 3-6.
Ironically, there’s 16 RBs listed in both charts. In other words, the number of RBs going in the dead zone hasn’t changed. However, it’s notable that the quality of RB has certainly changed.
Sure, we can apply hindsight analysis in terms of what those RBs did in 2020, but without even looking at the results, we can see that the type of RB that’s currently available in the dead zone is vastly different that what used to be in this range. Back in 2020, the RB dead zone kicked off with Todd Gurley, the RB16 and finished with Devin Singletary as the RB31. Today? Derrick Henry kicks off the dead zone as the RB8, and it extends to the RB23 range with Pacheco.
I’m not here to debate whether or not Henry is a good pick this season, but I just want people to note that we’re getting top-12 drafted RBs in the dead zone this season – that never used to happen.
Knowing that drafters are historically very good at identifying the best RB targets, how do we adjust our approach in 2023? This season, I’m more inclined to follow that early WR train and snag a true anchor RB in Round 3 or 4. The archetype of a Derrick Henry, a Josh Jacobs or a Rhamondre Stevenson used to cost us a Round 1/2 turn selection. Now, the opportunity cost is more palatable at a Round 3 or 4 cost.
By prioritizing this range for your RB1 or RB2 selection, you avoid the drop off that’s inevitable after Round 6…the new Dead Zone.
Starting in Round 7, we see names like:
- Cam Akers
- Rachaad White
- James Conner
- David Montgomery
- Javonte Williams (Injury concerns)
- Alexander Mattison
- James Cook
- Alvin Kamara (Suspension risk)
- Devon Achane
- Brian Robinson
It’s easy…very easy…to poke holes in almost all of these guys. This is not the range where I want to be taking my RB2. And sure, we do tend to see one or two guys really emerge from the Dead Zone each season, but the hit rates in this new dead zone project to be quite poor.
Zero RB drafters may want to dip their toes in these waters based on previous year’s data, but remember, this range is vastly different than the type of RBs who were going here in past seasons. I say let’s adjust and snag some of these elite RBs going in Rounds 3-4 to pair with our early WRs.
4. Hey rookie, welcome to the NFL.
This graph below illustrates the average ADP for rookie WRs selected in Rounds 1-3 of the NFL Draft going back to 2015.
As you can tell, pretty much the only rookie WRs who got any love in the best ball ADP streets were the guys going in Round 1 of the NFL Draft. Those taken in Round 3 were essentially an 18th round dart throw or going undrafted while Round 2 guys were going slightly earlier but certainly not early.
So how does this year’s rookie WR class compare in terms of May ADP on Underdog? My goodness…
A couple of takeaways:
- The average ADP for this year’s 1st Round rookie WRs is 85th overall.
- Jaxon Smith-Njigba is going as the second highest rookie WR since Amari Cooper in 2015.
- Since charting this data, Jordan Addison is all the way up at 71st overall in ADP. He rose a full round in just a few days.
- Jalin Hyatt is approaching Jalen Tolbert levels here. He’s the second-highest drafted 3rd Round WR since 2015.
According to my co-host and Ducer extraordinaire, Kyle Borgognoni, 44% of rookie WRs taken before pick 150 have met or exceeded their win rate expectation since 2015. Historically, it does make sense to invest in rookies for your best ball rosters as we see them gain value as the season progresses, but that data accounts for a lower opportunity cost. Will we see the same type of hit rate for these rookies now that they’re going multiple rounds higher in ADP?
Let’s take a look at the rookie TEs next…
A couple of takeaways:
- Dalton Kincaid is being drafted as the TE11 off the board with the second-highest ADP for a rookie TE since 2017.
- Michael Mayer currently has the second-highest ADP for a Round 2 rookie since Mike Gesicki in 2018.
- There are five players from this year’s class in the top 13 ADPs for rookies going back to 2017.
This trend is a bit concerning, especially when you look at the hit rate for rookie TEs over the years. First, there’s an obvious poor hit rate for rookie TEs in year one. Rookies who have been drafted in the first 2 rounds since 2017 have averaged: 32 receptions and 369 yards, and that includes Kyle Pitts‘ historic rookie season.
Second, as John Daigle pointed out on Twitter, we just don’t see spike weeks come from this group of TEs. If we’re drafting them, they had better be extreme outliers, even at their ADP.
0.5-PPR (Underdog scoring) PPG buckets for 2nd- and 3rd-round rookie TEs since 2011.
Out of 46:
TE1-12: 2% (Jordan Reed)
TE13-24: 9% (4)
TE25-36: 15% (7)
Outside Top 36: 74% (34)
7 total top-three spike weeks (out of 514 appearances) in year one.
— John Daigle (@notJDaigle) May 13, 2023
One more stat to just drive it home – Just two first-year TEs have finished inside the top-12 since 2014:
You probably know where I’m going with this, but this feels like an incredible spot to fade the market in early drafts. You’ll certainly find these rookie TEs lower in my Best Ball Rankings when the Ultimate Draft Kit is released on June 1.
I hope you found this information helpful, and I do think there’s an edge right now for early drafters if you can sift through the data and current landscape to identify where the market is efficient and where the market is potentially off. Of course, we’ll know the answer in 2024 after the season is over, but we’ve got to take stands somewhere if we’re going to find an edge. Best of luck out there in the best ball lobby. If you’re looking for even more best ball content, be sure to subscribe to the DFS and Betting Podcast where Kyle and I will be discussing best ball strategy and rankings all summer long.