Brace yourself for truly groundbreaking fantasy football advice: In order to make the playoffs this season, you needed to draft the best players.
Patently obvious advice or not, it was the truth during the 2022 fantasy football regular season, spanning Weeks 1-14, at least judging by the players most commonly found on the rosters of ESPN playoff teams. More importantly, that realization presents stark contrast to the season that preceded it, once again proving that there's no singular, one-size-fits-all path to success. Sometimes, it's the stars who propel us to championships. Other times, it's the waiver-wire wonders who do so. In 2022, the stars were the ones who carried us ... well, at least they have this far.
Consider: Eight of the 10 players found on 60% or more of ESPN playoff teams were selected among the first 29 picks on average during the preseason, and none of the 10 lasted beyond pick 56, while 31 of the top 50 most-rostered players also were top-50 preseason picks on average. For a telling comparison point, six of the 12 most-rostered players on 2021 playoff teams went undrafted in the preseason, proving a piece-it-together strategy to team building an unusually successful angle.
Leading the way overall this year was the Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce, also the clear class of his position. Kelce's 71.7% roster rate on playoff qualifiers is the fourth-highest rate in the sixth seasons that I have written this column, trailing only Christian McCaffrey's 78.1% in 2019, when he scored a second-best-in-history 471.2 PPR fantasy points; Alvin Kamara's 77.4% in 2017, his rookie season when he went from being undrafted in fantasy to leading the league with 148.0 points in the five weeks preceding the playoffs; and James Conner's 75.9% in 2018, when he took over and did a fine job as the Steelers' starting running back following Le'Veon Bell's holdout.
You'll notice that all three of those players ahead of Kelce are running backs, while Kelce is a tight end. Considering the dearth of quality options at the tight end position this season, Kelce's league-leading status is a logical outcome, though this is every bit as much about his outstanding season as it is a matter of position scarcity.
Through 14 weeks, Kelce finds himself 12th among all positions with 257.4 PPR fantasy points (he'd rank 15 if using per-game averages), and he has a near 100-point advantage over his positional brethren (Mark Andrews' 157.9 points rank second). That's enough to place Kelce among the 20 best single-season totals by a tight end in history already, but he's actually on pace for 336.6 points, which would shatter Rob Gronkowski's positional mark (330.9, in 2011). Additionally, even if adjusting to 16 games, which was the length of the seasons for each of the position's three best point totals (Kelce's 312.76 in 2020, which is his personal best as well as the position's second-most all time, included), Kelce is on pace for 316.8 points, which would set a new career high and rank second only to Gronkowski's 2011.
That 99.5 PPR fantasy point advantage Kelce has over the rest of the tight end field also currently represents the second-largest differential in history between the positions Nos. 1 and 2 scorers, trailing only the 111.6 point advantage Kellen Winslow had over the field in 1980 (he scored 272.0 that year). Kelce's excellence coming in a year that has been especially difficult for fantasy managers seeking to fill their tight end position, coupled with his 70%-plus roster rate on playoff teams, presents as strong candidacy as there is for early fantasy MVP honors.
Before we get into other such playoff-relevant stories, let's get to the list itself. Listed below are the top 50 players in terms of percentage of ESPN leagues in which their teams advanced to the playoffs. Included are their preseason ADPs (average draft position) as well as year-to-date earnings in PPR scoring.
Seven players have scored 282.8-plus PPR fantasy points this season, and six of them can be found on a playoff roster in at least 60% of ESPN leagues, with Joe Burrow (290.8 points, 53.4%) just outside of that group. Jalen Hurts (65.4% playoff rate), the league's leading scorer (334.88 PPR fantasy points) was selected 56th on average, making him a compelling candidate for fantasy MVP status as well.
Josh Jacobs (second-best 65.7% playoff rate), who is second among running backs with 282.8 PPR fantasy points for the season and easily tops at the position in the past five weeks (130.3 points), is another strong contender for those honors. He also faces the Patriots (Week 15) and 49ers (Week 17), two of the toughest defenses against the run this season, during the fantasy playoffs, so we'll see whether he's able to keep his teams afloat during those challenging weeks.
Undrafted players apparently had much less of an impact on 2022 fantasy playoff races than any of the past five seasons that preceded it. In fact, only two players who went truly undrafted -- ADP of 170 or greater or selected in fewer than one-third of ESPN leagues in the preseason -- found themselves on playoff rosters of teams in more than 40% of leagues, Christian Watson (44.2% playoff rate) and Geno Smith (41.6%). Watson was the No. 4 wide receiver in PPR fantasy points in the five weeks preceding the playoffs (99.2), during which time he scored eight total touchdowns in four team games, while Smith has been the No. 6 quarterback for the season (245.62).
Justin Fields (49.8% playoff rate) has been one of 2022's most interesting stories, performing so poorly in September as to warrant dropping in shallow fantasy leagues, only to charge back with five consecutive games worth at least 22.62 fantasy points from Weeks 7-11. Fields' seasonal contributions made him the fifth most-rostered quarterback on playoff teams (49.8%). That's despite his No. 18 ADP at the position in the preseason.
As has always seemed the case, waiting on your team defense/special teams paid dividends again in 2022. The Philadelphia Eagles were the preseason's No. 13 defense selected on average, yet found themselves on ESPN playoff teams in a position-best 57.5% of leagues. The New England Patriots, too, turned their No. 14 preseason positional ADP into spots on playoff rosters in 42.7% of leagues. It did, however, pay off to get the consensus No. 1 defense, as the Buffalo Bills had the second-best playoff rate among D/STs (51.1%).
While Kelce, Hurts, Jacobs and Fields might've carried their fantasy teams to this critical stage on the calendar, can any or all of the four put their teams over the top en route to a championship? We shall soon find out, as we'll be back in two weeks to update the lists with the players on the most finalists' teams.
Good luck to you in the fantasy playoffs!