Soon it will be rookie draft season for dynasty leagues. Every year we get a new group of young players to debate, rank and then draft. You can probably tell yourself a story about how any player can succeed and have a long productive fantasy career. None of them have had a chance to disappoint us yet.
Draft capital is unquestionably predictive of future success. There are several places to read about the impacts of draft capital for offensive players. I personally like Peter Howard’s work on his Patreon (free). However for Individual Defensive Players (IDPs), there’s not so much out there. This article comes in to fill that void.
This article is intended to help with rookie drafts in dynasty leagues, by showing you the historical hit rates of IDP players with similar NFL draft capital.
Updates from Last Year
If you have read last year’s article you will find that there are several changes this year
- All the players are now grouped by their “True Position”. This means that nominal 3-4 Outside Linebackers like T.J. Watt and Von Miller are classified as Defensive Ends, and 3-4 Defensive Ends like Leonard WIlliams become Defensive Tackles. Sleeper is using true position already, ESPN changed to this format in 2020 and MFL is changing to true position in 2022. The hit rates are different across each position, so it makes sense to group players with similar roles together, instead of a depth chart position which can have different roles from team to team. Every fantasy website classifies players a little bit differently, and I’ll discuss how I’ve assigned positional designations further down.
- In addition to adding the 2021 season, I’ve gone back and added the 2012 and 2011 seasons.
- In past years I’ve presented the hit rates for a top 24 finish only, but this year I have included multiple thresholds. There are many variations of starting requirements in IDP – I play in 5 dynasty leagues and none of them are the same. My hope is it gives you, the reader, some flexibility to apply this to your own leagues.
- Previously I’ve shown hit rates for “3 position” (DL/LB/DB, think Sleeper) and “5 position” (DT/DE/LB/CB/S, think MFL) leagues. This year I’ll only present “5 Position” hit rates, with some quick rules to help adjust for your “3 position” leagues.
- I’ve added some info on repeat rates at each position. We can’t just assume that each position has repeat performers at equal rates (and they don’t).
Comments on Methodology, Scoring, Position Designations
All hit rates shown are for players who hit in their first 3 NFL seasons. Waiting more than 3 years for a player to breakout clogs your roster, and there’s a good chance you have cut the player by that point.
The scoring used here is IDP123, which is a 2 point per solo tackle system, and the current scoring default on Sleeper. The best place to learn more about that scoring is Jordan Rains’s Dynasty Nerds article here, or his tweet thread on the topic here. However for the purposes of rookie hit rates, the scoring doesn’t change the analysis unless you are using something completely different than this or the Fantasypros standard scoring. I’ve done some review on IDP scoring previously here.
Defensive statistics are from Pro Football Reference and scored myself, so there are some small variations between what I have scored and what you might see on your favourite fantasy site if they use different statistic providers. It also means that I have not captured any offensive statistics, so I don’t have Christian Wilkins’s touchdowns in 2019 or 2021, Jeremy Chinn’s rushing yards in 2020, or anyone else’s offensive stats accounted for. This is defensive stats only.
Positional designations were primarily determined using free information available PFF – I don’t have the budget for an Elite subscription to get the snap counts by alignment – as well as any other info I could find on old rosters or depth charts. Since every platform has variations on how they assign positions, there will be some differences between what each site has and what I have, and I’ve chosen to live with those differences. This is also somewhat of a retroactive continuity for the early years in the data set, because while we have complained about the way pass rushers get classified by their depth chart position for as long as I can remember playing IDP, The true position revolution on fantasy platforms is relatively new (at least as far as I know).
Some players legitimacy change positions over the course of their careers. For the purposes of rookie hit rates those players are grouped with their initial position, unless it was clear that they were changing positions when you would have drafted them as rookies.
Defensive End is influenced the most by early draft capital. The top half of the first round is very good, but that very quickly changes and the hit rates drop substantially by the end of the round. Generally all subsequent rounds have worse hit rates than any other position shown here. I would argue that for Defensive End, only the first round should be considered “good” draft capital. It is the only position with no top 36 hits in either the 6th or 7th round. Day 3 Defensive Ends should generally be avoided in rookie drafts.
Moving all the pass rushing Linebackers to this group hasn’t changed the hit rates very much at all – the top 24 hit rate for top 16 picks is exactly the same as last year. This validates re-classifying all the players to True Position for the purposes of determining hit rates.
I’ve chosen to not include a Top 36 hit rate for Defensive Tackle because after the 24th Defensive Tackle, they score significantly fewer points than any of the other positions.
Defensive Tackle is otherwise very similar to Defensive End, except the hit rates look marginally better after round 1. That difference is 1 or 2 extra players from each draft round having a hit season.
Whether you are required to start 1 or 2 Defensive tackles will make a big difference in terms of how you apply this table to your league. There is only 1 player out of the 134 day three picks to have a top 12 season this early in their career, whereas there are 10 players in that group with top 24 finishes in their first 3 season.
The gap in hit rate from the top to the bottom of the 1st round appears to be unique to Defensive Ends and Tackles.
Linebackers have similar hit rates the in the top and bottom halves of the first round, and the sample size is much smaller than Defensive End and Defensive Tackle, so the split in the round isn’t presented here.
The big difference from this year to last year is once you remove the Linebackers who primarily pass rush (they have become Defensive Ends), the hit rates rise dramatically, especially in the first round. A 76% hit rate for a top 24 season is the best of any position and round, though they still lag behind top 16 pick Defensive Ends and Defensive Tackles for hit rates for top 6 and 12 finishes.
The third round has a 22% hit rate for a top 24 finish, which is about where I would draw the line of having good draft capital. That said there are many more players who have fantasy relevant seasons from rounds 4 through 7 than there is on the defensive line.
I’m inclined to stream Cornerbacks as much as possible, but some dynasty leagues don’t have good options on waivers so you have to keep several on your roster. Unfortunately for our rookie drafts the hit rates on Cornerbacks with 1st or 2nd round draft capital is the worst of any of the defensive positions, with the exception of Defensive Ends (the 1st round for Defensive Ends as a whole is worse, but that position has a noticeable difference between the top and bottom halves of the round while Cornerback does not).
Late round picks don’t make up the difference either. More Cornerbacks are drafted than any of the other defensive positions, which dilutes their hit rates.
Safety is the flattest position. The hit rate for elite seasons (top 6 finishes) is about the same for each of the first three rounds. This is a red flag to me. Safety is so dependent on deployment for a good fantasy season, and NFL teams are looking for different things from that position in real life than we are as fantasy players (we are looking for a bunch of tackles, mostly).
Adjustments for 3 Position IDP Leagues (DL/LB/DB)
I chose to only show only the 5 position tables for clarity, however you may play in a 3 position league where DT/DE and CB/S are combined. I looked at the scoring results since 2011 to see how the top 12, 24, 36 and 48 split between each of the positions. I said above that the scoring used doesn’t matter much for hit rates, but that is less true here. In particular, the scoring for passes defended (PD) relative to tackles will affect the number of Cornerbacks and Safetys with high finishes at the DB position (generally Cornerbacks get a few more PD’s). It is important to check your own league scoring and past results.
- On average 2.2 Defensive Tackles finish in the top 12 DLs (range 0 to 5)
- On average 4.3 Defensive Tackles finish in the top 24 DLs (range 1 to 8)
- On average 8.7 Defensive Tackles finish in the top 36 DLs (range 5 to 13)
- On average 13 Defensive Tackles finish in the top 48 DLs (range 7 to 18)
- On average 2.5 Cornerbacks finish in the top 12 DBs (range 1 to 6)
- On average 6.8 Cornerbacks finish in the top 24 DBs (range 5 to 9)
- On average 13 Cornerbacks finish in the top 36 DBs (range 7 to 15)
- On average 18 Cornerbacks finish in the top 48 DBs (range 10 to 20)
If you are playing in a league with a combined DL or DB position and you only start 2 of each, you are really looking for elite outcomes from Defensive Tackles or Cornerbacks. If you start more than 2 of each, then those positions are more viable, but they look very much like floor plays to me as most of those players appear to slot in your 3rd and 4th DL/DB spots.
Repeat Rates and Late Hits
We want players that hit, but it’s even better if they hit for multiple seasons. The following table shows the average number of top 24 seasons per player, split by players who had at least one top 24 season within their first 3 NFL seasons, and players who had their first top 24 season later. I restricted this to the 2011 to 2018 draft classes to only include players who have had the opportunity to have repeat top 24 seasons.
Defensive Linemen are more likely to repeat that performance than other positions. Linebacker and Safety share the same repeat rate, while Cornerbacks have the lowest frequency of repeating.
I haven’t presented this by draft round here, but generally the earlier rounds have better repeat rates than late rounds. That said, the group sizes outside of the early rounds are all small. After round 3 the biggest group is 4th round linebackers with 6 players who have early top 24 hits.
Tom Kislingbury of Dynasty League Football (DLF) has looked at this through the lens of year-to-year repeats and found similar results.
Depending on the position, the number of players who have breakout seasons later in their career is about 35-55% of the number of players who have breakout seasons earlier. There also isn’t a distinct pattern of what rounds these players are coming from, except for Defensive End, where 9 of the 17 late breakouts are first round draft picks.
The average number of top 24 finishes from late breakout players varies between 1.4 and 1.7 for each position, suggesting that late breakout players don’t have the same longevity as their early breakout peers, but there are exceptions. Jordan Poyer changed positions from Cornerback to Safety and has had five consecutive top 12 Safety finishes, starting with his 5th NFL season. There is also a little bit of skewing in this sample, in particular with the 2018 class who’ve had a chance to breakout in their 4th year, but haven’t had a chance to repeat it yet.
Conclusions and Next Steps
If you have read my past work on IDP rookie hit rates, the biggest change is that once you filter out edge rushers from the Linebacker group, the remaining Linebackers have excellent hit rates compared to the other positions. Before you filter out edge rushers, the best hit rates come from Defensive Ends with early 1st round draft capital. Tripp Brebner of Dynasty Football Factory made the following comment when I posted my first study of IDP draft capital in 2020.
I think the higher repeat rates at Defensive End are significant enough that a Defensive End drafted with a very early 1st round pick should still be considered ahead of a 1st round Linebacker, although that is going to depend on your league lineup requirements, scoring and whether the league is using True Position designations or not.
A couple of things I haven’t addressed here that I think will make for good future articles:
- More work on repeat rates of players who have hit.
- A closer look at successful and unsuccessful players with 1st round draft capital to see if the middle of the round is an appropriate place to split players, or if other spots are better (I’ve shown here that Defensive Linemen have a break point in the first round. It is worth looking at again for all IDP positions).
- The choice to use the first 3 years as a cut off for hit rates was somewhat arbitrary, and necessary for me when I first started this with the computer knowledge I had at the time. I think that is probably the correct spot but checking whether the 3rd and 4th year breakout players have similar career trajectories to 1st and 2nd year breakouts or to late breakout players is worthwhile.
Thank you for reading this study on draft capital and its impact on fantasy IDP players. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions or comments. You can find me on Twitter @djkelltown.