Game Theory: Valuing Rookie Draft Picks in Fantasy Football

While some fantasy football managers are going all-in for a title, others are rebuilding. On both sides, draft picks play an important role. So, how should you value them?

We’ve reached the mid-season marker for our dynasty leagues, and now is the time to consider your team’s ability to compete in the playoffs. For those that have decided to rebuild, rookie draft picks play a crucial role. So how should we be valuing them?

If you’ve decided that your team is not in a position to compete the season, stocking up on draft picks can be a very effective way to help your team rebuild in future seasons. Now before I get into this, I do want to share a bit of advice for you:

I believe that it is easier to win now than it is to win later.

It is very difficult to predict who will be good this season. It is much much more difficult to predict who will be good next season. So I want to caution you from committing to a rebuild too soon. Ideally, you never have to rebuild, and can compete every year. But in the event that you do need to rebuild, I do want to teach you a thing or two about how to evaluate how much a rookie draft pick is worth.

The Difference in Value Between Picks

Rookie draft picks are claims on a player in a specific draft class. Their value is dependent upon many different factors. Those factors include, but are not limited to: which round of the draft pick is, which specific pick in that round it is, the talent of the players in that class, the depth of the specific positions in that rookie class, how good you are at drafting, and how badly your league mates want the picks.

The easiest concept to understand is that value is tied to draft position. The first overall pick in a rookie draft is more valuable than the second overall pick in a rookie draft. A first-round pick is more valuable than a second-round pick.

This isn’t complicated. I think where some managers get caught up is in the amount of difference between draft picks. That gap in value is actually quite subjective and dependent upon the league you are in. If you’re in a league with managers who are not very good at drafting and might make an unwise selection with the first overall pick, then perhaps the second overall pick is not much worse than the first overall pick if the best players in the class are all still available. Conversely, if your league mates are very sharp, then the gap in value between draft picks is much more significant.

That gap in value can also be affected by the type of league you are in. If you are in a standard league, then the gap in value between picks is smaller than if you were in a superflex league, because in a superflex league quarterbacks are more valuable.

Conversely, if you are in an IDP league, the gap between picks is smaller because the player pool is larger. If you remember in Episode 4 of my podcast, when I talked about supply and demand, this is the same concept. The demand grows when the value of the players grows, like in a superflex league. The supply grows when the number of relevant players increases, like in an IDP league. The more that demand decreases or supply grows, the smaller the gap in value is between picks. The more demand grows and the more supply is limited, the greater the gap in value becomes.

It is also important to be honest with yourself about your ability to hit on the players that you draft. If you need a lesson in the hit rate of rookies, just look at previous rookie drafts and see which players panned out. It would be beneficial for you to gain a general understanding of what to expect from your pic so you don’t overspend for a high pick, or undersell a later pick. You can get some absolute game-changers high in rookie drafts. Absolutely. But you can also get some really big busts.

The same can be said later in the draft, but the rate at which you hit on those players largely depends upon your skill as a drafter. Ultimately, it’s important that you manage your expectations appropriately.

2022 Picks vs. 2023 Picks

Now that we know how to differentiate between picks within the same draft class, we now need to discuss the differences between picks in different draft classes.

There is currently a perception among dynasty managers that the 2023 rookie class will be very talented. Some managers are giving up 2022 rookie draft picks in order to gain 2023 rookie draft picks. While I am not here to tell you or to predict how good specific draft classes will be, I can teach you a simple lesson about economics that might change the way you approach this particular issue.

Draft picks are an insulated asset. What I mean by that is: their value will not change and is not subject to injury or retirement, or any other kinds of variance that a player would be subject to. Their value is locked in until you spend that pic on a player in a rookie draft. However, once you make a pic, it is no longer an insulated asset. That player becomes subject to variance, and their value can rise or fall.

But here’s the deal. As fantasy managers, we should be looking for players who can accrue value. A 2023 pick generally cannot accrue value until it is spent on a player. A 2022 pick begins accruing value one year sooner. This is why it is better to have a pick that is sooner rather than later. A phrase I use a lot with my leaguemates is: “Time is an inherent detractor to value.” If you need to wait in order to use an asset, that takes away from the asset's value. For example, if a player is injured, that takes away from their value because you cannot start them until they return from their injury.

An analogy I’ve used in the past to explain the difference in draft picks by year is this: imagine these draft picks are like race cars. The 2022 draft pick is a slower race car than the 2023 draft pick, if we make the assumption that the 2023 rookie draft class is a superior class. The general assumption among dynasty managers is that the “car“ associated with the 20 to 23 class is faster. As soon as the driver steps on the gas, that car will accelerate at a faster rate than the car associated with the 2022 class.

But, what many managers are failing to realize is that the car associated with the 2022 class gets to step on the gas one year sooner. It has a one-year headstart. By the time the 2023 car gets to step on the gas, the 2022 car is miles down the road!

So here’s what this analogy means for you as a manager: when you draft a player with your 2022 rookie draft pick, that pick becomes an accruable asset one year sooner than if you had waited until 2023. By the time the 2023 rookie draft class comes, the player you drafted with the 2022 pick will have likely increased in value to a point where that player is greater in value than if you had simply waited to spend that pick in 2023.

Heck, it might even be worth a 2023 pick and more by the time that 2023 draft class comes. Once again, time is an inherent detractor to value.

Don’t wait to acquire your assets. Get them as soon as you can.

Ask Yourself: Why Am I Trading?

So now that you have a general understanding of how to value your draft picks within their class, and how to value your draft picks relative to other classes, now you need to make the decision of how and when to acquire those draft picks.

Whenever I make a trade in a dynasty league, I ask myself, “What’s the purpose of this trade?” If I’m a contender, and I’m trading a player for a pick, that trade accomplishes the exact opposite goal of what my team's goal is at the moment. I am giving up current value for future value. I am hurting my chances of success this season.

Conversely, if I am a rebuilding team and I trade picks for players, I am practically shooting myself in the foot if that player is not an accrual asset. Players that are not accrual assets are veterans that likely don’t have more growth within their range of outcomes, or unproven players who don't have a realistic shot to become valuable.

As with all of the advice I give on this podcast, take it with a grain of salt and use it on a case-by-case basis. There are times when it is beneficial for your team to trade away players for picks if you’re a contender. Maybe you intend to trade that pick away for a player that can help you this season. Or maybe the player you are trading away has absolutely no chance to help you contend this season.

Those might be good times to break the rule I gave you. On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to trade picks for players even if you’re a rebuilding team if the player you’re trading for has a chance to accrue value at a greater rate than the pick you are trading away. Just be smart about what you are doing and make sure that you have a sound process that guides each of the decisions you make.

One last bit of advice to give: every pick is a player.

If you have 20 picks next year, that’s 20 players you need to find roster space for. There’s a good chance you won't be able to keep all of them come Week 1.

I would try to consolidate value from many later picks into fewer earlier picks if you are probably unable to roster every player you'd take with them.

I hope this article was informative and easy to follow. If you have any questions about these topics, shoot me a DM on Twitter @BGTEvan! I’ll make sure to get back to you and answer whatever questions you might have. Good luck this upcoming week!

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Photo attribution:

This Reddit post.

A guest post by
Evan is the host of The Big Game Theory Podcast and specializes in teaching fantasy football managers how to apply the science of decision making to their fantasy leagues.