It’s early August, which means it’s time once again to argue about fantasy football. Who should you take with the no. 1 pick? Which offenses and players will surprise you? Which draft picks will completely tear your office apart? Welcome to “Make the Case,” a series in which Ringer staffers will answer the most pressing fantasy questions heading into the 2019 season. We’ll help you game your way to a championship—or at least avoid drafting like David Gettleman.
Patrick Mahomes unveiled his own brand of cereal this week, and almost immediately, people began reselling it on eBay. Within a day boxes were going for as much as $33—a casual 800 percent markup. It seems people are willing to pay whatever it takes for a piece of Mahomes. He is the reigning NFL MVP, the Madden cover star, and the only person in the world who prefers Hunt’s ketchup over Heinz. In his first season as a starter he became the third player to throw 50 touchdown passes in a single season, became the youngest player since Dan Marino in 1984 to win the Most Valuable Player award, and had the most second-most fantasy points in a single season in NFL history. His no-look passes have done more to make football look cool than every Tom Brady snap combined. In real life, he’s the favorite to win MVP again in 2019. But in fantasy football, he’s currently going at a price so high that even the people selling $33 boxes of cereal on eBay should blush.
On the website FantasyPros, which averages the rankings of 33 experts, Mahomes is ranked no. 38 overall, which would have him in the bottom of the fourth round of a standard 10-team snake draft. But in mock drafts pulled from five different websites, his average draft position is no. 19 overall, toward the end of the second round. The disparity is even greater on ESPN, where Mahomes is ranked as a fifth-rounder (no. 47 overall) and being drafted on average a spot earlier in the second round (no. 18 overall). The Chiefs quarterback is the near-consensus top quarterback in fantasy this year—that will happen the year after a player submits the most fantasy points ever at his position—but his ascension into the top 20 of fantasy football drafts presents a terrible value in 2019 and borders on a fundamental misunderstanding of how fantasy football works.
Regression Doesn’t Have to Be Mean
History says Mahomes probably can’t match his 2018 performance. A quarterback’s statistical production is a function of his offense, and Kansas City’s offense was outrageously good in 2018.
Chiefs 2018 Offense, All-Time Ranks (Since the 1970 NFL-AFL Merger)
|Yards Per Play||2|
Last season the Chiefs offense scored the third-most points for a team in NFL history (behind only the 2013 Broncos and 2007 Patriots) and gained the second-most yards per play (behind only the Greatest Show on Turf Rams). Because the NFL is so competitive and is always evolving, it’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain that production for two seasons. As ESPN’s Mike Clay, who does fantasy-projection modeling for ESPN, wrote in a May piece looking at whether Kansas City could miss the playoffs in 2019, he unveiled a key stat:
“Of the 30 offenses that scored 50-plus touchdowns in a season over the past decade, only three increased their total the next season. All three were Patriots teams (2011, 2012, 2016). The average drop of everyone else was 13.3 touchdowns.”
That dropoff was even greater for the teams that posted the largest touchdown totals. Clay found that the five teams who scored more than 58 touchdowns in a season scored almost exactly 16 less, or an average decline of roughly one per game. If the Chiefs scored 16 fewer touchdowns last season, they would have come in third in the league in scoring behind the Rams and the Saints. Regression to the mean does not mean the Chiefs will become average, but rather they will remain an elite offense while falling off of record-breaking or near-record-breaking numbers.
With the Chiefs offense scoring less, the same will likely happen for Mahomes. It’s hard to pace the league for two years in a row, which is why no one has repeated as the no. 1 fantasy QB in back-to-back years since Daunte Culpepper in 2003 and 2004 (though Aaron Rodgers was a top-two fantasy QB every year from 2008 to 2012). Pacing the league for multiple years is hard, but pacing NFL history for two years in a row is bonkers. As Matthew Berry pointed out in his 100 facts column, six quarterbacks have thrown 40 or more touchdowns in a season since 2004 and not gotten hurt the following season, and those six averaged a 16.4 percent drop in fantasy production the following season. These numbers can all go down even if he remains among the best in the league. So even if Mahomes’s play doesn’t get worse, his numbers almost surely will.
The Best Quarterback Isn’t Worth a Top Pick
Mahomes could be the best fantasy QB in 2019 and still be a terrible second-round pick. Traditional fantasy football settings create value around positional scarcity. Rosters feature just one starting quarterback each week but up to three running backs and three wide receivers, artificially inflating the value of those other positions and deflating the value of signal-callers. Additionally, as the NFL has become a passing league, midtier quarterbacks have produced gaudy statistics. Just last year, Matt Ryan was being drafted as a backup and eventually finished second among quarterbacks in points to Mahomes, and Jared Goff tore through the first two-thirds of the season despite being drafted as a backup. Thus the best value in fantasy football drafts can be had by investing late-round picks in quarterbacks. J.J. Zachariason, the founder of the analytics website numberFire that was acquired by FanDuel, popularized the late-round QB strategy and even wrote a book on it (it’s explained well in this blog post). It’s now considered standard among fantasy experts to not take quarterbacks in the first few rounds, possibly waiting until the bottom end of the top 100. Scarcity dictates value.
Mahomes was on 35.5 percent of teams that won their fantasy championship on ESPN.com last year. But Mahomes was drafted on average at no. 118 overall last year, meaning the teams he played for not only got his performance at a discount, but used that excess draft capital on other players instead. By taking Mahomes in the second round, not only does he have to play at a historic rate to be worth the pick, he’s also coming at the expense of a running back, receiver, or tight end who could be a difference-maker. Numbers show year after year that drafting a running back or wide receiver (or in George Kittle’s case, a tight end) in the top 25 combined with a quarterback selected in the 70s or 80s is more valuable than a quarterback in the top 25 and a skill player later. Perhaps Mahomes can buck history and stay at an all-time level for a second season in a row. If he can’t, it might cost you a championship.
Or perhaps you’re the kind of player who just wants fun players to root for and will figure out the rest later—the most liberating way to enjoy the sport. If that’s not you, then he’s not a good investment until the third round, and odds are he won’t last that long in a snake draft, or go for a price in an auction that’s palatable.
So while Mahomes is likely not worth his current draft slot, that raises the question of whether something is structurally wrong with fantasy football if that is the case. If the game is supposed to measure anything resembling real-life football, devaluing quarterbacks seems ludicrous. Adding a second starting quarterback spot in leagues is the clear solution to this problem. In two-quarterback leagues, where scarcity comes into play for the position, Mahomes is a top-five pick. That certainly seems more in line with real life than now, where all the available research suggests he has roughly the same fantasy value as Leonard Fournette.
But for those who still play in one-quarterback leagues, drafting Mahomes is the same as shelling out big bucks for one of those boxes of cereal: It is not a good value. But if you understand that and want to just enjoy having him around, then pay whatever it takes.