Learning from the Biggest Fantasy Busts in 2020
Last week I went through the biggest fantasy hits and crowned the 2020 fantasy MVP and tried to determine what made those players so valuable so we can better find the possible MVPs for the 2021 season. This week we’ll be doing the opposite. Finding the massive flops of 2021 can be just as useful as securing the big breakouts so we’ll be anointing a fantasy LVP for 2021 and pinpointing what led to them tanking all of their teams. First, a few honorable mentions.
Honorable Mention: Zach Ertz and A.J. Green
I’ll be mentioning Best Ball win rates in this article a lot. Best Ball isn’t a direct parallel to managed leagues but it does serve as a good proxy to normal leagues and does a great job at quantifying which players added to fantasy teams the most. The win rate is simply the percentage of teams with a specific player that won their league. All teams have a 1/12 chance to start so the average player win rate should be at 8.3%. Players with win rates that are half or even a quarter of that rate were crippling their team’s chance of winning every week.
The first two players on the list are Green and Ertz. Those two had 4.4% and 3.6% win rates respectively. They were among the lowest in the league among players who played at least 10 games. That’s an important caveat. Of course the players who were drafted in the top-five and played 30 snaps in a year are going to be the biggest busts. However, can we predict them? There are some minor indicators of future injuries but on the whole, it’s not worth trying to predict injuries, especially among early round-round players who are already the players who we have preselected to be the young, healthiest, most-able to take on 300 carries or 150 targets.
Moving on from that, Green and Ertz played for teams that told us their times were coming. Green reportedly wanted out of Cincinnati before the season and was reluctant to sign his franchise tag. He was given the tag because he hadn’t been healthy in years and the team was not willing to commit to him for more than a single year. Then they selected a receiver at the top of the second round he even profiled as an alpha, outside receiver which is eerily similar to Green’s job. Ertz’s indicators were more subtle but he was also refused a long-term deal by his team and the Eagles had selected a second-round tight end recently who had hit a certain level of stride in 2019. Both of these teams were sending out bat signals that Green and Ertz were not in their long-term or even mid-term plans. That means two things. The first is that if they aren’t in the plans outside of this year, there are a lot of ways they can work themselves outside of their plans within the next year. If the Bengals are 1-9 and Green is playi
ng poorly, they have zero incentives to keep playing him. The second is that it means they probably know something we don’t. We see one game a week and then get some offseason rumors plus beat writers watching some reps in training camp. The teams are seeing them all day, every day, for much of the offseason that we spend reading reports that X young player has lost five pounds and “looks faster.” If they are screaming that an aging veteran isn’t in their future plans, it’s probably for good reasons.
Honorable Mention: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Elliot may be the biggest bust among the healthy players as his 2.7% win rate was lower than every other player who was drafted at least 500 times and played in 10 or more games. He played in all but one game and although Zeke himself wasn’t injured, it’s hard not to pin most of his failure on an injury. Before Dak Prescott went down, Zeke was averaging 23.8 PPR points per game. He was touching the ball 22.6 times per game and was on pace to score 19 times over the course of a full season. After Prescott was hurt his PPR per game dropped to 11.8. He was touching the ball over four fewer times each week. His scoring production dropped five fold. This isn’t as much of an indictment of Zeke as it is of his position. Running backs are so dependent on their surroundings that our perception of their “talent” should have very little bearing on how we view them. As long as the Cowboys franchise tag Prescott or give him an extension we should probably expect some sort of bounceback for Elliott. His bust in 2020 should have us extremely weary of the next high-cost running back who is on a weak offense. David Montgomery and James Robinson are undoubtedly talented backs with immense roles but they were both incredibly fortunate to see those talents shine through on bad offenses. These types of players seem like long-term losing bets.
2020 Least Valuable Fantasy Player: Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Jackson comes in as the worst fantasy pick of 2020 not because he had the lowest win rate. His 4.1% rate was the lowest among quarterbacks but not among all players. He is the worst pick of last year because of how predictable his downfall was. Jackson was being taken at the 2/3 turn in most drafts based on his ADP. He was being taken as if his 2019 performance was the median projection for his 2020 outcome. His 2019 season was actually his 90th-percentile outcome. Since 2000, there have been 18 quarterbacks to post a TD rate of 7% or higher while throwing 300 passes who then threw at least 300 pass attempts next year. Not a single one of them increased their scoring rate in the following season. The average drop among these players was 2.5%. Jackson’s rate dropped by 2.1% and he threw 25 fewer pass attempts on the year. Any reasonable projection probably had his rate in this range with maybe more pass attempts. The season was maybe a slight disappointment based on his volume but it’s certainly less than one
standard deviation away from his projekciton. Drafting Jackson at his cost was betting on an outlier among outliers. The expected outcome for him would have negatively impacted your team severely because of what it cost to acquire him. Still, he was routinely taken in the first 24 picks. Understanding simple differences between what a projection will tell you and what a player costs will at a minimum move you from a losing fantasy player to a breakeven one and Jackson is the ultimate example of this.