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What Are the Chances of Back-To-Back Top-12 Finishes? (Part One)

We're entering the second half of 2020 and the hottest part of the summer, which means we're starting to get our feet wet in the draft-season waters. One of the most frequents trends in every league around the fantasy world, no matter what, is to go and draft last season's studs hoping for a repeat in the upcoming year. Is that a sound strategy, though?

On the surface, it makes sense to draft the best players available, that is, those with the largest fantasy tallies from the previous season. The problem with that strategy is that we are betting on those players repeating what could have been career years and one-off seasons completely out of the norm. But is that actually the case? How often do players have great seasons on back-to-back years?

In this two-part series, I'm taking a look at fantasy data (PPR format) from 2000 to 2019 in order to see how often it is for football players to finish two consecutive seasons inside the top tiers of fantasy leagues, and if they're actually worth paying the high prices they have attached to them. Let's get to it!

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!


The Data: from 2000 to 2019

As I already wrote in the introduction, I'm using PPR-format fantasy data for this exercise. All player seasons considered (each entry has the data from season X and season X+1), there are 10,423 lines in my data set. Of those, 2019-20 entries shouldn't be counted as we don't have data for the upcoming 2020 season so it's impossible for us to know if they'll repeat or not what they did last year. That leaves the data set at 9,866 lines, more than enough to perform a good analysis.

I have limited the variables in the dataset to those that go straight to the point here: total fantasy points, points per game, age, games played, and also fantasy points over expectation. Each variable includes a label "Q1" for year X, and "Q1.N1" for year X+1, just in case.

If you were curious as to how things have looked year-to-year for the past 20 seasons, that is how. Pretty messy chart, isn't it? We better break it down a bit.


Fantasy-Relevant Players - Year-to-Year PPR

In order to keep things simple and relevant, I have removed all players to finish the year outside of the top-12 overall scorers from each season. Then, I have removed the 2019 seasons from consideration as their 2020 outcome is still unknown. Finally, I have removed players who didn't play at least 10 games in year X+1, as those never truly had the chance to have a "repeat season" and therefore can skew the results.

After all, I ended with 190 top-12 players in year X that went on to play at least 10 games in year X+1. I have colored their dots by position in the next chart.

First of all, and just taking a glance, you can spot some interesting things already:

  • The majority of points are green, which represents running backs. They are also those located (mostly) on the upper part of the chart, which means they tend to score high in the second year of each pair of seasons. They also expand to the right side, which means high scoring seasons in year X.
  • Wide receivers (red) are close to running backs in terms of total players to have ranked inside the top-12 overall. They usually score fewer points in both years X and X+1.
  • Quarterbacks (blue) ranked inside the top-12 almost always come with very high floors the next season. Only four of the 51 in the chart to rank inside the top-12 went on to have an under-200 PPR point season in year X+1.
  • There is only one top-12 tight end (Rob Gronkowski in 2011). He was able to rack up 330.9 PPR points that year and then went on to score 200 in 2012. Too bad he could only finish as a top-64 player overall in 2012...


Fantasy-Relevant Players - Year-to-Year Rank

While looking at the actual PPR points each of those players got in years X and X+1 comes at a finer level of detail, it might be simpler to look just at their overall rank in those seasons. Here is the same data set of players, only now showing their year end's rank when all was said and done.

Things are starting to look a little bit bad for those living by the career-year drafting strategy, aren't they?

Of the 190 players to finish year X inside the top-12, only 65 of them (34%) repeated in year X+1. Of those 65, just 30 (46% of the 65, or 16% of the 190) improved their ranking from one season to the next one.

Let's use our knowledge from that long-gone Math 101 class we attended a few years back. If 65 of the players in the dataset maintained a top-12 finish from year X to year X+1, and as we're working with a sample covering 19 seasons, then fewer than four players (3.4) per season will repeat a top-12 finish, or if we're too benevolent and round up to the ceiling, four per season at most.

What this means is that even the best of players, the true NFL superstars, are not immune to regression. Only four players per season, in the best of cases, can be expected to repeat their awesome years from 12 months ago each passing season. In fact, the 2010 season saw the most players that would go on to repeat a top-12 finish in 2011 with seven individuals. Not once has that mark been reached again, with only three players from 2018 hitting the top-12 again in the most-recent 2019 season.

That's it for the first part of this column. In the second one, I'll break down the data position by position to see which players were able to have back-to-back top-12 seasons, how they did it, if they overperformed to impossible extents, and what are the chances we see it happening again with some 2019 players.

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