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From Sports Illustrated

Back-to-Back: Do Top Fantasy Performers Repeat?

Success is hard. Consistent success even harder. Fantasy football (and life in general) tends to be a “what have you done for me lately” affair. On the flip side, if you perform well, that creates trust in you, for next year at least. But how often is that trust rewarded? How often do the top fantasy performers players at each position actually repeat? Taking a look at the top five players at each spot, we’ll see how often these top performers are able to replicate their performances the next year.   

(Data taken from FantasyPros. PPR scoring.)

2012

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Tom BradyAdrian PetersonCalvin JohnsonTony GonzalezStephen GostkowskiChicago Bears
Drew BreesDoug MartinBrandon MarshallJason WittenMatt BryantSeattle Seahawks
Aaron RodgersRay RiceA.J. GreenJimmy GrahamBlair WalshDenver Broncos
Cam NewtonArian FosterDez BryantHeath MillerJason HansonNew England Patriots
Robert Griffin IIIMarshawn LynchAndre JohnsonRob GronkowskiJustin TuckerLos Angeles Chargers

No retention rates as this is the first year of data. Just looking at the names though you’d expect a lot of these players to repeat, especially in the quarterback and wide receiver columns.

2013

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Peyton ManningJamaal CharlesCalvin JohnsonJimmy GrahamStephen GostkowskiKansas City Chiefs
Drew BreesLeSean McCoyJosh GordonTony GonzalezMatt PraterSeattle Seahawks
Cam NewtonMatt Forte Antonio BrownJulius ThomasJustin TuckerCarolina Panthers
Andrew LuckKnowshon MorenoA.J. GreenJordan CameronStephen HauschkaArizona Cardinals
Andy DaltonMarshawn LynchDemaryius ThomasVernon DavisAdam VinatieriSan Francisco 49ers
2/51/52/51/5

Depending on what your expectations were, not a great start. Not a single position managed to get over 50% of the same players in the top-five twice in a row. Running backs and D/ST had just one repeat each, although no position had zero players retain a top five spot.

2014

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Andrew LuckLe’Veon BellAntonio BrownRob GronkowskiStephen GostkowskiPhiladelphia Eagles
Aaron RodgersMatt ForteDemaryius ThomasJimmy GrahamCody ParkeyHouston Texans
Russell WilsonDeMarco MurrayJordy NelsonGreg OlsenAdam VinatieriBuffalo Bills
Peyton ManningMarshawn LynchDez BryantAntonio GatesMatt BryantLos Angeles Rams
Drew BreesArian FosterEmmanuel SandersMartellus BennetDan CarpenterNew England Patriots
3/52/51/52/50/5

We got our first 3/5 now, with the quarterbacks. It makes sense, as there are far less of them in the pool. Despite that holding true for defenses as well, we also got our first 0/5, with no defenses able to repeat at all. So far, that’s been the worst position in terms of consistency. Running back and tight end are the next worst, with a retention rate of 30% so far. Couple shout-outs: Gostkowski rocking the top kicker spot three straight years. Lynch held a top-five spot for the running backs all three years, ranking fifth, fifth and fourth. The only other player besides those two to occupy a top spot all three years was Jimmy Graham for the tight ends.

2015

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Cam NewtonDevonta FreemanJulio JonesRob GronkowskiStephen GostkowskiArizona Cardinals
Tom BradyAdrian PetersonAntonio BrownJordan ReedGraham GanoDenver Broncos
Russell WilsonDanny WoodheadDeAndre HopkinsGreg OlsenBlair WalshKansas City Chiefs
Blake BortlesDeAngelo WilliamsBrandon MarshallGary BarnidgeCairo SantosCarolina Panthers
Carson PalmersLamar MillerOdell Beckham Jr. Delanie WalkerChandler CantanzaroSeattle Seahawks
1/50/51/52/51/50/5

Right after I just predicted that quarterbacks will have a high retention rate, they go and have 1/5 year. Although this year just looks wild. Blake Bortles in the top five? The running backs also had a 0% retention rate, with Danny Woodhead somehow placing third (don’t forget it is PPR). Tight ends also had some weird names like Gary Barnidge. D/ST gets another year with zero repeats, and it really looks like a pattern is forming for that position. Shout-outs: Gostkowski makes it four years running as not just a top five kicker, but THE best kicker in football. Antonio Brown has now made it three straight years in the top five.

2016

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Aaron RodgersDavid JohnsonAntonio BrownTravis KelceJustin TuckerPhiladelphia Eagles
Matt RyanEzekiel ElliotJordy NelsonGreg OlsenMatt BryantKansas City Chiefs
Drew BreesLe’Veon BellOdell Beckham Jr. Kyle RudolphDustin HopkinsNew England Patriots
Kirk CousinsLeSean McCoyMike EvansDelanie WalkerAdam VinatieriMinnesota Vikings
Andrew LuckDeMarco MurrayT.Y. HiltonJimmy GrahamCaleb SturgisDenver Broncos
0/52/50/52/5

Three position groups had 0/5 retention, with this being the second year in a row for the running backs. They have the worst top-five repeat rate now (tied with D/ST who had a good year this year), and without Lynch holding it down for three straight years it’d be even worse. Was the 3/5 from the quarterbacks in 2014 a fluke? They are at 1/10 the past two years, which is surprising. Shout-outs: Antonio Brown ties Gostkowski (who fell off the list for the first time) with four top five placings in five years. Greg Olsen is making a nice run, he’s made it three years in a row now.

Halfway Percentages

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
6/20, 30%3/20, 15%7/20, 35%7/20, 35%5/20, 20%3/20, 15%

2017

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Russell WilsonTodd Gurley IIAntonio BrownTravis KelceGreg ZuerleinJacksonville Jaguars
Alex SmithLe’Veon BellDeAndre HopkinsRob GronkowskiStephen GostkowskiBaltimore Ravens
Cam NewtonAlvin KamaraKeenan AllenZach ErtzRobbie GouldLos Angeles Rams
Carson WentzKareem HuntLarry FitzgeraldEvan EngramChris BoswellPhiladelphia Eagles
Tom BradyMelvin Gordon IIIMichael ThomasDelanie WalkerWill LutzLos Angeles Chargers
0/51/52/50/51/5

Another year that saw just 5/30 top five finishers repeat. Quarterbacks with another 0, which is incredible to me. Alex Smith coming in second shocked me to my core. Kickers also had two straight 0/5 years. Tight end is now the most consistent position, with running back and D/ST still the worst but kickers are coming up (or falling down) quickly. Shout-outs: the return of the king, Stephen Gostkowski comes in second after dropping off last year. He and Brown are still tied with the most appearances, five times in six years, with this being Brown’s fifth straight. Delanie Walker was quietly very consistent, he made it on three years in a row. Staying with the tight ends, Travis Kelce has taken the top spot twice in a row. I wonder if he’ll stay up there.

2018

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Patrick Mahomes IIChristian McCaffreyDavante AdamsTravis KelceKa’imi FairbairnChicago Bears
Ben RoethlisbergerTodd Gurley IIAntonio BrownZach ErtzWil LutzLos Angeles Rams
Matt RyanSaquon BarkleyMichael ThomasGeorge KittleJason MyersHouston Texans
Aaron RodgersAlvin KamaraDeAndre HopkinsEric EbronJustin TuckerMinnesota Vikings
Deshaun WatsonEzekiel ElliotAdam ThielenJared CookMason CrosbyBaltimore Ravens
0/52/53/52/51/5

Incredibly, another 0/5 finish for the quarterbacks. They are now tied with the running backs and kickers in repeat top fives. D/ST takes sole possession of least consistent position, although they are just one back of the QB-RB-K tie. Speaking of ties, wide receivers have our first 3/5 in a while and tie up most consistent position with the tight ends. Shout-outs: Antonio Brown’s run in the mid 2010’s might be overlooked in how dominant it was. He takes first place in the most consistent player award with Gostkowski dropping out again. Travis Kelce earned his third first place in a row, one shy of Gostkowski’s record four times in a row. 

2019

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Lamar JacksonChristian McCaffreyMichael ThomasTravis KelceHarrison ButkerNew England Patriots
Deshuan WatsonAaron JonesChris GodwinZach ErtzWil LutzPittsburgh Steelers
Dak PrescottDalvin CookDeAndre HopkinsMark AndrewsMatt GaySan Francisco 49ers
Jameis WinstonAustin EkelerJulio JonesGeorge KittleJustin TuckerMinnesota Vikings
Russell WilsonEzekiel ElliotJulian EdelmanDarren WallerZane GonzalezBaltimore Ravens
1/52/53/52/5

Finally a quarterback repeat. Just in time for them to tie D/ST as the least consistent position group. Tight end takes back most consistent group. Not surprising, the talent disparity of tight ends has always been pretty high. Running back gets their first back-to-back top finisher. Shout-outs: Travis Kelce ties Gostkowski with four straight top placings. Is he the best tight end of all time? It’s getting hard to argue otherwise. DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas and Wil Lutz also entered the three top-fives in a row club. 

2020

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
Kyler MurrayAlvin KamaraDavante AdamsTravis KelceJason SandersPittsburgh Steelers
Josh AllenDalvin CookTyreek HillDarren WallerYounghoe KooMiami Dolphins
Patrick Mahomes IIDerrick HenryStefon DiggsT.J. HockensonDaniel CarlsonIndianapolis Colts
Aaron RodgersJames RobinsonDeAndre HopkinsRobert TonyanTyler BassLos Angeles Rams
Russell WilsonAaron JonesCalvin RidleyLogan ThomasRodrigo BlankenshipBaltimore Ravens
1/52/51/52/50/52/5

Final Percentages

QuarterbackRunning BackWide ReceiverTight EndKickerD/ST
8/40, 20%8/20, 20%14/40,  35%16/40, 40%8/40, 20%9/40, 22.5%

Least consistent position group ends up as a three-way tie between kicker, running back and quarterback. Most consistent went to the tight ends, with wide receiver not far behind. D/ST, who I expected to be on the bottom had a nice run in the last four years to escape the cellar. Quarterback and D/ST were the only positions to not have someone repeat as the best player back-to-back.

Awards

Most Consistent: Antonio Brown. He made it as a top five player six of the nine years. 

Honorable Mention: DeAndre Hopkins. Made it five times, including the last four years in a row. Funnily enough, he never made it to the top spot.  Justin Tucker also made it five times, although his were more spread out.

Most Dominant: Travis Kelce. This one isn’t even close, as Kelce has been the top tight end every year since 2016. Barring injury, you’d be hard pressed to bet against him taking it again this year as well.

Honorable Mention: Stephen Gostkowski had a great run with four straight number one placings from 2012-2015, and made it to the top-five kickers list five total times. 

Analysis

Quarterbacks

I’m shocked that this one ended up on the bottom. We’ve had some really great quarterbacks’ careers span through this time like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. But some way somehow these quarterbacks just don’t tend to repeat. One theory is that the mid 2010’s were something of a transition period, with the older guys like Brees, Brady and Peyton Manning giving way to the young guns like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson. It also seems more likely for any random quarterback to just have a god-like year. They had nearly the most unique entrants on their top-five lists, with multiple one-and-dones like Blake Bortles, Alex Smith and Jameis Winston. 

Running Backs

I’m not terribly surprised this group ended so low. It’s the position with the smallest shelf life, and the most injury risk. Another reason has been the transition of the running back role over time. The early 2010’s you still had runners like Adrian Peterson whose only real job was to run the ball 20-30 times a game. These days, that’s getting rarer and rarer, and now teams favor a mixed approach with the running backs. Most of the top scorers catch passes as well as tote the rock, or have running back by committee. 

Wide Receiver

I think this group gets helped a lot by PPR scoring. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them get much more variable if switched to standard. Regardless, this position was really bolstered by its stars. You had the same names make it over and over and over again. Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas and more made multiple lists. 

Tight End

Initially I was a bit surprised this position won, but if you think about it for a second it makes sense. Of course, they had tons of random guys like Gary Barnidge and Eric Ebron infiltrate the top-five of the position. But this position is so incredibly top heavy. The first two or three guys had the same names repeat often, with very little competition to knock them off. It was also a smooth transition from the Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski era to the Travis Kelce + 1 (Darren Waller, Zach Ertz, Delanie Walker) era with very little overlap.

Kicker

Kickers are dumb. It’s just nearly impossible to predict kicker workload from year to year, leading to all kinds of weird lists. Sometimes you kick a ton of field goals and make it on. Sometimes you kick a ton of extra points. And it doesn’t matter if you’re particularly accurate, as long as the team keeps letting you try. 

D/ST

This one was very surprising to me. There have been some really dominant defenses in the 2010’s like the Legion of Boom, the legendary Denver defense in 2015, the Bears in 2018 and the Patriots in 2019. The problem is that so much of a defense’s points come from takeaways and return touchdowns (defense or special teams), which are incredibly variable year to year. This makes it difficult for even the best defenses to repeat.

How Does this Affect Your Draft?

Be wary of recency bias. Over the past nine years, on average only one running back or quarterback that finished top-five will do so again the next year. The thing is, you pay a premium for those guys that finished top-five, and it is statistically unlikely for them to return the price you paid. On the other hand, using your first round pick for a wide receiver or tight end is nearly twice as safe. I’m not saying take Travis Kelce first overall, but consider just how safe Kelce is. He’s a guaranteed 200+ scorer (barring injury), something you can’t really say for anyone else. For a practical example, before you take someone like James Robinson with your sixth-tenth pick consider how consistently brilliant Kelce and someone like DeAndre Hopkins or Davante Adams will be.