To those who have advanced to your league's fantasy football playoffs: Congratulations! Nice work.
Advancing is no simple task, demanding a combination of successful drafting and keen in-season roster management. Our annual list of the most popular players on the rosters of 2019 ESPN fantasy football playoff teams supports that. The list is a blend of successful draft-day selections as well as high-impact, in-season pickups. And, as is typically the case in this game, you need to be good, just as you need to be lucky. But it's often better to be lucky than good.
Five of the 23 most common players on the list went undrafted in ESPN leagues, and another five from within that group were selected outside the top 100 on average. Three of these were team defense/special teams, further supporting the idea that it's better to stream at the position, with the stronger choices generally more evident after the season starts than on draft day.
Getting the right first-round pick, as is also typically the case, also matters: Christian McCaffrey, the game's highest-scoring individual player with 354.1 PPR fantasy points through 12 games -- that's the third-most in history by any player through that many team games of any season -- had an average draft position (ADP) of 2.8, ranking second, and is on more than three-quarters of ESPN playoff teams' rosters (78.1%, to be exact).
Here are the 38 players who reside on the rosters of playoff teams in at least 50% of ESPN 10-team standard leagues, along with their preseason ADPs. The list reflects players in PPR (point per reception) leagues, our standard.
First off, that the list included 38 players is, in itself, extraordinary. It's the greatest such total in any of the four years since we've published the data, following the 21 (2016), 27 (2017) and 24 (2018) of the past three seasons. That could be the product of a wider differential between the game's top scorers and the lower tiers this season - McCaffrey alone has scored 25.1 more points than Lamar Jackson (329.0), who has scored 54.9 more than Michael Thomas (274.1), and all three of those players have scored at least 40.9 more points than the 11th-best scorer for the year. But on the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.
To no one's surprise, McCaffrey, Jackson, the Patriots defense/special teams and Thomas, the four players (or teams) in position to set league records, find themselves first, third, fourth and seventh overall on the list. Jackson's 329.0 fantasy points are the second most by any quarterback in history through 12 team games of a season, and he's in relatively good shape to continue to lead his teams to championship glory, with upcoming matchups against the Bills, Jets, Browns and Steelers. Even if Jackson isn't the NFL MVP -- though it's easy to argue that he is -- he's in outstanding position to claim the honor of fantasy MVP.
The Patriots D/ST has slipped somewhat in recent weeks, but assuming their fantasy managers can survive their Week 14 matchup against the Chiefs, they have one of the best final-three-weeks schedules in the league, with the Bengals, Bills and Dolphins. Thomas, meanwhile, is on pace to set the league's single-season receptions record, but he'll also deal with one of the toughest matchups of Week 14 when he faces the 49ers.
The presence of three names high on the list indicates that early-season success was more important in 2019 than later-season success: Austin Ekeler, Darren Waller and Chris Godwin were all top-three-at-their-position performers through the first seven weeks of the season, all of whom saw steep declines in production thereafter. Ekeler's per-game PPR fantasy points average declined by 8.1, Waller's by 7.5 and Godwin's by 7.9, but they nevertheless find themselves on the rosters of ESPN playoff teams in at least 59.6% of leagues.
To the same point, but taking the opposite approach, DeAndre Hopkins is a name notably absent from the above list, despite his WR4 ranking in PPR scoring for the season to date. Using that same Weeks 1-7 versus Weeks 8-13 breakdown, Hopkins scored 3.0 PPR fantasy points more per game in the latter than former, yet he's not one of the most commonly found wide receivers on ESPN playoff teams. He's nevertheless the 13th most-common wide receiver found on said squads (49.9%), but it's clear that it was the mid-round wide receiver value picks -- the Godwins, DJ Charks and John Browns -- who most propelled their teams into the fantasy postseason.
Unlike last season, when in-season pickups such as Spencer Ware and Josh Adams ranked high on the list despite having only been added in the weeks directly preceding the playoffs, this year's list includes many full-season contributors. Perhaps the only in-season "add" -- or at least technically only active for the few weeks that preceded the fantasy playoffs -- was Kareem Hunt, who resides on 52.1% of rosters despite having scored only 56.3 PPR fantasy points in four games. In the seven days before the NFL Kickoff game on Sept. 5, Hunt found himself on 64.5% of ESPN rosters, with his in-season low point 54.6% rostered entering Week 5 and his roster percentage sitting at 59.3% at the expiration of his eight-game, season-starting suspension. Hunt concluded the fantasy regular season on 85.0% of ESPN rosters, so it seems that a greater percentage of managers drafted and held him all year -- not the easiest thing to do and one I (apparently wrongly) argued against in the preseason -- rather than waiting until his eligible return to add him.
Breaking down things by position, here are the five most popular players at all six standard positions on the rosters of ESPN playoff teams:
Utilizing the data to highlight some of 2019's biggest busts, among only top-100-ADP players, here are those who found themselves on the smallest percentage of ESPN playoff rosters. Only players who appeared in at least five games are included; players who were severely limited by injuries (or other circumstances), such as Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Antonio Brown, David Njoku and Derrius Guice, are not.
Is O.J. Howard the season's biggest bust? In a season in which six tight ends have already scored at least 140 PPR fantasy points, which is nearly 85 more than Howard's total, the wrong pick at the position could've really sunk you. The Buccaneers' usage of the big tight end has been puzzling, and the continuing prospect of his rebounding probably explains how he was able to stick on at least half of ESPN rosters through October, and on 38.9% through Week 13. That means 30% of those teams that still had him missed their leagues' playoffs.
Strangely absent from the list is David Johnson, a common pick for fantasy bust of the year. Johnson didn't miss by much, residing on playoff rosters in only 34.5% of ESPN leagues, compared to placing on a roster in 90.9% of teams overall exiting Week 13. That wide divide certainly earns him my nod for the label.
Who will be this year's fantasy playoff stars? We'll find out in two and four weeks, when we update you on the players who reside on the most finalists' and champions' rosters.