As I browse the fantasy football message boards here on ESPN.com, I occasionally find someone pondering which draft position is the most advantageous. Most of the respondents offer their personal preference based solely on recent draft patterns within their small universe of leagues (or within our free mock drafts, which can be found here).
While it's impossible to give a definitive answer to this question because each draft you participate in will produce different results, here are a couple of approaches to help you determine where you want to be:
Approach 1: Assume all teams draft based on comparison to lowest positional starter
Methodology: Compare projected scoring totals for initial starting lineups, assuming that each team selects the player who provides the greatest variance within total points from the lowest positional starter left to fill out their remaining lineup.
Findings: Based on current ESPN.com projections, if this method were followed in a standard 10-team ESPN league, the team totals would be:
Draft slot No. 1: 1,540 points
Draft slot No. 2: 1,550 points
Draft slot No. 3: 1,547 points
Draft slot No. 4: 1,533 points
Draft slot No. 5: 1,536 points
Draft slot No. 6: 1,534 points
Draft slot No. 7: 1,525 points
Draft slot No. 8: 1,517 points
Draft slot No. 9: 1,515 points
Draft slot No. 10: 1,504 points
According to these results, it's clear that the first three draft slots provide the greatest value, and the final three draft slots place owners at a slight disadvantage. However, the difference from the best slot (No. 2) to the worst (No. 10) amounts to fewer than 2.7 fantasy points per week. Considering your team score will fluctuate from week to week, that variance isn't significant by any means.
Approach 2: Establish the historical likelihood of securing a top player at different locations within the first round
Method: Compare the top 10 players selected (the first round in a 10-team league) as determined by average draft position from 2005 through 2008 to their end-of-year ranks.
Findings for quarterbacks: Over the past four seasons, only three quarterbacks have found themselves within the top 10 average draft positions in any given season: Peyton Manning (2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008), Daunte Culpepper (2005) and Tom Brady (2008). If you exclude the disastrous results of taking the soon-to-be-injured Culpepper in 2005 and Brady in 2008, the average scoring-output rank for the remaining group (Peyton Manning every year) is 3.75.
Basically, when you select a quarterback in the first round, you pretty much expect him to finish as the highest-scoring quarterback. Yet only once in the past four years did a quarterback who was taken in the first round finish as the highest-scoring quarterback (16.7 percent draft-pick success overall). On three occasions, a quarterback who was taken in the first round finished as a player ranked third at his position (50 percent draft-pick success).
Findings for running backs taken first overall: LaDainian Tomlinson has been the consensus first overall selection in each of the past four seasons. In two of those years, Tomlinson finished as the top-ranked player at his position (50 percent draft-pick success). In three of the past four years, Tomlinson has finished among the top 3 at his position (75 percent draft-pick success).
Findings for all running backs not taken first overall: In the past four seasons, 19 running backs other than Tomlinson have been drafted in the average first round of fantasy drafts: Adrian Peterson (2008), Brian Westbrook (2007, 2008), Clinton Portis (2006), Deuce McAllister (2005), Domanick Davis (2005), Edgerrin James (2005, 2006), Frank Gore (2007, 2008), Joseph Addai (2007, 2008), Larry Johnson (2006, 2007), Marion Barber (2008), Priest Holmes (2005), Reggie Bush (2007), Ronnie Brown (2006), Rudi Johnson (2006), Shaun Alexander (2005, 2006, 2007), Steven Jackson (2006, 2007, 2008), Tiki Barber (2006), Willie Parker (2007) and Willis McGahee (2005).
On just one occasion (Shaun Alexander in 2005) did a running back who was not taken first overall but still taken in the first round finish as the top-ranked player at his position (3.7 percent draft-pick success). On only three occasions did a running back who was taken on average between picks No. 6 and No. 10 finish the season among the top 10 at his position (20 percent draft-pick success).
Summary: The stats above might be dry and boring, but they present an underlying truth in fantasy football: The lone safe spot to draft from is first overall. Not only does it provide one of the most competitive draft slots from which to start, but it also unquestionably provides the most reliable results.
While it's fallible to compare what you should reasonably expect to accumulate out of each draft slot by assuming everyone drafts the best available according to the position averages, the results that are derived from that method are usable because they treat all owners as statistical equals. When you add those results to the likelihood that players drafted later in the first round aren't nearly as safe as those drafted earlier in the round, it becomes quite obvious that the earlier you draft, the higher the expectation you should have for your team.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. His ESPN.com fan profile is available at: http://myespn.com/KenD17.