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Can Auto-Drafted Fantasy Football Teams Outperform Those Teams Drafted By Hand?

Christian McCaffrey - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News, DFS Lineup Picks

“I kicked your butt and I auto-picked!” How many of us so-called “experts” have heard that?

And to add insult to injury, before this statement, I warned the guy, “This is an advanced league where you pick defensive players instead of team defenses. Auto-draft will never be able to handle that.”

Damn that artificial intelligence! So how is it that auto-drafted teams beat some of our teams that were meticulously built by hand after hours of research?

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Teams In A Vacuum Simulating Auto-Draft

How can auto-drafted teams beat hand-picked teams? Let’s start with the first round. In fantasy sports, there’s a saying: "You can’t win your league with your first pick, but you can definitely lose it.”

Table 1 – 2023 Average Draft Position With 10-week Fantasy Point Totals

Standard League Scoring Point-Per-Reception Scoring
ADP Name Position Fan Points ADP Name Position Fan Points
1 Christian McCaffrey RB1 182 1 Justin Jefferson (IR) WR1 109
2 Justin Jefferson (IR) WR1 73 2 Christian McCaffrey RB1 220
3 Austin Ekeler RB2 86 3 Ja'Marr Chase WR2 180
4 Ja'Marr Chase WR2 111 4 Austin Ekeler RB2 108
5 Travis Kelce TE1 84 5 Tyreek Hill WR3 224
6 Tyreek Hill WR3 155 6 Travis Kelce TE1 141
7 Bijan Robinson RB3 102 7 Cooper Kupp WR4 68
8 Cooper Kupp WR4 44 8 Bijan Robinson RB3 131
9 Nick Chubb (IR) RB4 19 9 Saquon Barkley RB4 106
10 Saquon Barkley RB5 83 10 Stefon Diggs WR5 201
11 Derrick Henry RB6 106 11 CeeDee Lamb WR6 198
12 Stefon Diggs WR5 128 12 Nick Chubb (IR) RB5 23
13 CeeDee Lamb WR6 130 13 A.J. Brown WR7 204
14 A.J. Brown WR7 137 14 Davante Adams WR8 141
15 Patrick Mahomes QB1 172 15 Tony Pollard RB6 113
16 Davante Adams WR8 84 16 Amon-Ra St. Brown WR9 170

Getting the obvious out of the way, whether you auto-draft or pick yourself, injuries happen. Because of two consecutive injury-plagued seasons, many fantasy players with the first pick will not draft Christian McCaffrey. Using the Draft Sharks Preseason Injury Predictor, Christian McCaffrey (82%) and Tyreek Hill (91%) had higher injury predictions than Nick Chubb (63%) and Justin Jefferson (40%). Injuries are not predictable.

Disregarding injuries, what does auto-draft do that’s so special? In the words of Kyle Reese from The Terminator, “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear.” Auto-draft doesn’t have an opinion or bias about players, it picks the next one from the list. Anyone who’s participated in a live draft that had people auto-drafting must have noticed as players are taken out of order, a queue of “old maids” accumulates and auto-draft comes along and gobbles them up. In this particular PPR league, Tyreek Hill was auto-picked in the eighth spot by the guy who now claims brilliance.


Old Maids Are Created Randomly

So how do you simulate one team auto-drafting while the others use their brains to draft? You write software that uses Average Draft Position (ADP) to draft teams into leagues. The standard Teams In A Vacuum (TIAV) drafts teams into different league sizes, correlates the fantasy points scored by each player, and tallies each team's score to produce a winner. To simulate the undrafted old maids, the software randomly swaps the draft position of the last team with one of the other late draft positions.

For example, in a 10-team league, Team 10 randomly swaps its pick with Team 7, Team 8, or Team 9. The limitation in the size of the range is saying that pick 10 is never going to be so lucky that one of the top ADP players will drop to the last pick in the round. An example snake draft may have Team 10 with picks 7, 11, 29, 31, 48, 51, and 68. Similar old-maid simulations are done for 12-team and 16-team leagues.

Table 2 – 2023 Example Auto-Draft Winning Teams Using 10-week Fantasy Point Totals

2023 12-Team Standard League 2023 12-Team Point-Per-Reception League
Draft Rank Player Name Fan Points Final Pos Rank Draft Rank Player Name Fan Points Final Pos Rank
11 Derrick Henry 106 RB6 10 Stefon Diggs 201 WR5
13 CeeDee Lamb 130 WR6 13 A.J.  Brown 203 WR7
32 Kenneth Walker 119 RB13 35 Lamar Jackson 183 QB4
37 Jonathan Taylor 64 RB15 - FLX 37 Keenan Allen 205 WR18 -FLX
58 Trevor Lawrence 123 QB8 59 Cam Akers 46 RB22
62 Drake London 60 WR25 63 Rachaad White 132 RB23
95 David Njoku 47 TE10 136 Tyler Higbee 54 TE13
Team 12 Total 649 Team 12 Total 1024

The standard TIAV algorithm snake drafts team comprised of the following positions:

  • 1 QB
  • 2 RBs
  • 2 Wide Receivers
  • 1 Tight End
  • 1 Flex -- best available Running Back, Wide Receiver, or Tight End when the other position is filled

Because there is a random component to this simulation:

  1. Only 2023 fantasy points are used
  2. Leagues are drafted 1000 times to see if auto-draft has a pattern of winning

Table 3 – Auto-Draft Winning Team Totals Over 1,000 Drafts

League Type Number Of Teams Expected Win Percentage Auto-Draft Winners
Standard 10 10% 4.2%
12 8.33% 3.25%
16 6.25% 3.4%
Point-Per-Reception 10 10% 10.9%
12 8.33% 24%
16 6.25% 5.6%
Total 8.20% 7.99%

Although the simulation gets a variety of results, the cumulative number of wins for auto-draft is close to an exact match of the expected number of wins. Although most league sizes do not produce enough auto-draft wins to reach the expected number, 12-team PPR was a sweet spot in the 2023 draft.

As seen in Table 1, if the last team in a 12-team PPR league was lucky enough to grab an old maid of Stefon Diggs (201) or CeeDee Lamb (198) plus its normal wrap-around pick A.J. Brown (204), Team 12 will win a disproportionate number of times.  This is true for an auto-drafted team or a live-drafted team; however, how many people believe in the WR-WR strategy for their first two picks? Once again, auto-draft doesn’t care!

No matter how much studying we do, simulations we run, or heated arguments we have with our competitors, we must acknowledge that fantasy football is a game of chance. If you randomly picked a number from 1 to 16, Table 1 shows you are just as likely to pick an underachiever as an overachiever. Auto-draft is making its selections without emotion.

But we are not machines. Fantasy football is about opinions. The idea is, you are trying to predict which players will score the most points. Look at the composite rankings, listen to the experts' projections, and then decide for yourself.

I would like to close with the words of Andy Behrens, who I met at this year’s Fantasy Football Expo. If you are drafting in a Yahoo league, two minutes before the draft starts, a video of Andy pops up and he instructs you who you should draft with your first pick. I said, “Thanks for the input but I rarely agree with your video.” Andy’s response, “You’re supposed to have your favorites. That’s the fun part!”

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