Fantasy football has been evolving over the past few years. Insights and analysis have become smarter while tools to help fantasy football participants are more readily available than ever, making it harder to create a lasting edge over your rivals. But you can still find an informational advantage if you know where to look.

Pioneers are adopting metrics from different sports, such as baseball’s wins above replacement, or WAR, to help push fantasy teams to the next level. Thanks to the early work of Jeff Henderson, WAR can now be used to evaluate fantasy football performance.

Henderson began to explore the concept in 2019 and last year laid out his methodology, which included estimating the benefit each player had on a weekly basis in terms of scoring points above and beyond an average player at the same position. That, in turn, was compared to the performance of a replacement player, which provides the wins added by the fantasy football player in question. It’s a useful tool and one we can build upon to provide a new way to value players on draft day.

With a slight tweak, we can apply Henderson’s work to assess potential for the 2021 season. The methodology used here looks forward using player projections for weekly performance, which are adjusted for injury risk and opponent. Those are then used to calculate each player’s wins above replacement using Henderson’s methodology of comparing how likely a fantasy team is to win its weekly matchup solely based on the player in question’s performance. Put simply, the higher a player’s WAR total, the more likely that player is to be a difference-maker for a fantasy team and the more often they project to provide a positive, matchup-altering performance.

The sum of the adjusted weekly projections for a 12-team league using a point-per-reception scoring system gives us a single, clean, final value for projected wins above replacement totals. The WAR totals you will see here are for a full 14-week fantasy regular season plus three weeks for playoffs, accounting for the first 17 of the NFL schedule’s 18 weeks. (Here is a full list of the Top 200 players.)

Here’s an example of how it is calculated. Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey, a top-three running back in 2018 and 2019 before getting injured in 2020, is expected to score 24 fantasy points per week in 2021. A replacement-level running back, one that ranks outside of the top 24 each week, scores approximately 10 fantasy points per week. When you take the difference between McCaffrey and a replacement-level running back and add it to what you would expect an average fantasy team to score (159 points), you get 173 fantasy points with McCaffrey. That boost gives the team with McCaffrey an 87 percent chance to win that week compared with a 29 percent chance if the fantasy team used a replacement running back. That means McCaffrey is worth 0.58 wins above replacement each week, or 9.8 WAR for a 17-week fantasy season.

This explains McCaffrey’s value in a more useful way than a projected point total. It takes roughly 10 wins in a 12-team, point-per-reception league to claim first place, which results in benefits such as a bye in the playoffs and a matchup against the weakest remaining playoff team in the field. In other words, McCaffrey projects to be a league-winner almost by himself, a key point if you have the No. 1 overall pick in your fantasy draft.

Using wins above replacement for your draft board rather than projected point totals or consensus rankings focuses on the value of each position relative to the player pool available. For example, you can see Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans and Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns are being slightly overvalued relative to their worth. Austin Ekeler, on the other hand, makes a case to be a top five pick of the draft in terms of impact. Ekeler gets high marks for consistency and a favorable schedule during the fantasy football playoffs (Weeks 13 to 16). Plus, his offensive line “should be one of the most improved units in the NFL,” according to Pro Football Focus.

Projected WAR in 2021
Christian McCaffrey (RB-CAR)
Dalvin Cook (RB-MIN)
Derrick Henry (RB-TEN)
Alvin Kamara (RB-NO)
Ezekiel Elliott (RB-DAL)
Davante Adams (WR-GB)
Nick Chubb (RB-CLE)
Travis Kelce (TE-KC)
Saquon Barkley (RB-NYG)
Aaron Jones (RB-GB)
Austin Ekeler (RB-LAC)
Tyreek Hill (WR-KC)

Using WAR can also greatly help evaluate players in terms of positional scarcity. Travis Kelce is the only tight end expected to contribute roughly six wins above replacement, making him a highly valuable pick, on par with the top wide receiver coming off the draft board (Davante Adams, 6.1 WAR). Just one other tight end, Darren Waller (5.6 WAR), is projected to earn more than five wins above replacement. T.J. Hockenson (3.4 WAR), George Kittle (3.3 WAR) and rookie Kyle Pitts (3.3 WAR) are next on the list and the only other tight ends expected to produce three or more wins above replacement. That’s a huge drop off in terms of talent, indicating that while Kelce and Waller warrant early selections, aside from them, your draft capital is better spent on other positions.

Wins above replacement also rewards consistency over boom-or-bust players. For example, wide receiver A.J. Brown played 15 games last season, producing 260 fantasy points in PPR leagues. His production over the course of the season earned him 2.6 wins above a replacement wideout. Had he scored all 260 points in Week 1 and none in the remaining weeks he would have cost your team 1.1 wins if he was rostered for those games.

Overall, wins above replacement combines player value, positional scarcity and scoring consistency in one easy-to-use metric, giving you a significant advantage on draft day. Here are this year’s top five fantasy football players at each skill position in terms wins above replacement for the 2021 season.