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Tomlinson pushed many teams to fantasy titles.

Bill Simmons wrote about LaDainian Tomlinson last month and called him the best fantasy football player of all-time. “Greatest ever” debates are always subjective, but at least when it comes to fantasy football, we can get pretty close to declaring a definitive answer. Joe Bryant’s landmark “Value Base Drafting” system explained that the “value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores, but by how much he outscores his peers at his particular position.” Bryant came up with the concept of calculating a ‘VBD’ number for each player to measure their value.

A player’s VBD is easy to calculate. Each player’s VBD score is the difference between the amount of fantasy points he scored and the fantasy points scored by the worst starter (at his position) in your fantasy league. A player who scores fewer fantasy points than the worst starter has a VBD of 0. There is no standard scoring system for fantasy leagues, so a player’s fantasy points total will depend on the specific league’s scoring rules.1 And, of course, his VBD score will change depending on the number of starters at each position in the league.2

That said, once you pick a scoring system and a set of rules, it’s easy to calculate career VBD scores for every player since 19503. Let’s start with the quarterbacks:

Player
Years
POS
Teams
VBD
OVR RK
POS RK
Peyton Manning1998--2010QBclt107191
Brett Favre1992--2010QBatl-gnb-nyj-min1061102
Dan Marino1983--1999QBmia988143
Fran Tarkenton1961--1978QBmin-nyg921154
Steve Young1985--1999QBtam-sfo774245
Joe Montana1979--1994QBsfo-kan727336
Randall Cunningham1985--2001QBphi-min-dal-rav723357
Tom Brady2000--2011QBnwe720368
Drew Brees2001--2011QBsdg-nor688389
John Elway1983--1998QBden6604010
Roger Staubach1969--1979QBdal6304411
Johnny Unitas1956--1973QBclt-sdg6254712
Warren Moon1984--2000QBoti-min-sea-kan5925713
Ken Anderson1971--1986QBcin5397414
Sonny Jurgensen1957--1974QBphi-was5287715
Dan Fouts1973--1987QBsdg5267816
Daunte Culpepper1999--2009QBmin-mia-rai-det5158017
Aaron Rodgers2005--2011QBgnb5078318
Tobin Rote1950--1964QBgnb-det-sdg-den4948819
Roman Gabriel1962--1977QBram-phi40413020
Rich Gannon1988--2004QBmin-was-kan-rai39613521
Kurt Warner1998--2009QBram-nyg-crd39613622
Bobby Layne1950--1962QBchi-nyy-det-pit38514023
Y.A. Tittle1950--1964QBbcl-sfo-nyg38414124
Daryle Lamonica1963--1973QBbuf-rai36815325


No matter how many times I see it, it always surprises me to see Joe Montana rank so high in career VBD. I’ve long thought that his reputation as a winner and a clutch quarterback is a disservice to the man who was a legitimately dominant statistical quarterback in the regular season.

Next up: Running backs.

Player
Years
POS
Teams
VBD
OVR RK
POS RK
LaDainian Tomlinson2001--2011RBsdg-nyj144321
Marshall Faulk1994--2005RBclt-ram130832
Jim Brown1957--1965RBcle129743
Emmitt Smith1990--2004RBdal-crd128654
Walter Payton1975--1987RBchi123665
Barry Sanders1989--1998RBdet115776
Curtis Martin1995--2005RBnwe-nyj900167
Marcus Allen1982--1997RBrai-kan846188
Ricky Watters1992--2001RBsfo-phi-sea841199
Thurman Thomas1988--2000RBbuf-mia8282110
Edgerrin James1999--2009RBclt-crd-sea7892211
Eric Dickerson1983--1993RBram-clt-rai-atl7842312
Shaun Alexander2000--2008RBsea-was7592713
Tiki Barber1997--2006RBnyg7462814
Lenny Moore1956--1967RBclt7442915
Priest Holmes1998--2007RBrav-kan7353116
Chuck Foreman1973--1980RBmin-nwe6673917
O.J. Simpson1969--1979RBbuf-sfo6554118
Tony Dorsett1977--1988RBdal-den6324319
Ahman Green1998--2009RBsea-gnb-htx6105120
Terrell Davis1995--2001RBden6095221
Clinton Portis2002--2010RBden-was6025322
Roger Craig1983--1993RBsfo-rai-min5955623
Herschel Walker1986--1997RBdal-min-phi-nyg5756124
Leroy Kelly1964--1973RBcle5676225

In 2000 and 2001, Marshall Faulk missed four total games when he was the most dominant fantasy force on the planet. Had he not missed those, he would have likely ended up with over 1400 points of VBD. The debate between Faulk and Tomlinson would be a good one, although Tomlinson would win out based on longevity. As far as peak, the edge goes to Faulk, who holds two of the top four seasons in FP/G history at the position. Although in recent history, perhaps the best peak belonged to Priest Holmes, who — if you include his 8-game season in 2004 — had three of the top seven seasons by FP/G among all running backs.

But even if Tomlinson is the top fantasy running back of all time, he’s got some pretty stiff competition at wide receiver:

Wide Receivers

Player
Years
POS
Teams
VBD
OVR RK
POS RK
Jerry Rice1985--2004WRsfo-rai-sea181911
Randy Moss1998--2010WRmin-rai-nwe-oti114682
Marvin Harrison1996--2008WRclt1019123
Terrell Owens1996--2010WRsfo-phi-dal-buf-cin1013134
Lance Alworth1962--1972WRsdg-dal847175
Steve Largent1976--1989WRsea834206
Cris Carter1987--2002WRphi-min-mia771257
Torry Holt1999--2009WRram-jax739308
Don Maynard1958--1973WRnyg-nyj-crd729329
Art Powell1960--1968WRphi-nyj-rai-buf-min7243410
Charley Taylor1964--1977WRwas6883711
Tim Brown1988--2004WRrai-tam6514212
James Lofton1978--1993WRgnb-rai-buf-phi-ram6304513
Isaac Bruce1994--2009WRram-sfo6294614
Raymond Berry1955--1967WRclt6194815
Bobby Mitchell1958--1968WRcle-was6184916
Larry Fitzgerald2004--2011WRcrd6135017
Reggie Wayne2001--2011WRclt6005518
Sterling Sharpe1988--1994WRgnb5915919
Chad Ochocinco2001--2011WRcin-nwe5826020
Harold Carmichael1971--1984WRphi-dal5626321
Harold Jackson1969--1983WRram-phi-nwe-min-sea5586422
Bob Hayes1965--1975WRdal-sfo5576523
Steve Smith2001--2011WRcar5466724
Jimmy Smith1995--2005WRdal-jax5466825
Rod Smith1995--2006WRden5456926
Michael Irvin1988--1999WRdal5447127
Mark Clayton1983--1993WRmia-gnb5297628
Paul Warfield1964--1977WRcle-mia4978529
Cliff Branch1972--1984WRrai4968630
Ernest Givins1986--1995WRoti-jax4948731
Fred Biletnikoff1965--1978WRrai4948932
Lionel Taylor1960--1968WRchi-den-oti4899033
Hines Ward1998--2011WRpit4879134
Herman Moore1991--2001WRdet-nyg4839335
Andre Rison1989--2000WRclt-atl-cle-jax-gnb-kan-rai4819536
Billy Howton1952--1963WRgnb-cle-dal4779637
Charley Hennigan1960--1966WRoti4749738
Gary Clark1985--1995WRwas-crd-mia4739839
Andre Reed1985--2000WRbuf-was4709940

Jerry Rice’s dominance at the position is unmatched. Although what Tony Gonzalez has done at tight end is a pretty close second:

Tight Ends

Player
Years
POS
Teams
VBD
OVR RK
POS RK
Tony Gonzalez1997--2011TEkan-atl1041111
Shannon Sharpe1990--2003TEden-rav769262
Kellen Winslow1979--1987TEsdg600543
Antonio Gates2003--2011TEsdg592584
Todd Christensen1981--1988TErai-nyg552665
Ben Coates1991--2000TEnwe-rav4541036
Ozzie Newsome1978--1990TEcle4541047
Jason Witten2003--2011TEdal4531058
Dave Casper1974--1984TErai-oti-min4211199
Keith Jackson1988--1996TEphi-mia-gnb40213110
Mike Ditka1961--1972TEchi-phi-dal34316511
Jerry Smith1965--1977TEwas33517412
Jackie Smith1963--1977TEcrd-dal32418213
Wesley Walls1989--2003TEsfo-nor-car-gnb30320414
John Mackey1963--1972TEclt-sdg27022815
Rich Caster1970--1981TEnyj-oti-was-nor26324016
Riley Odoms1972--1983TEden25324817
Mark Bavaro1985--1994TEnyg-cle-phi24425818
Mickey Shuler1978--1991TEnyj-phi24126319
Frank Wycheck1993--2003TEwas-oti24126420
Bob Tucker1970--1980TEnyg-min23926521
Brent Jones1987--1997TEsfo23626922
Steve Jordan1982--1994TEmin22627623
Billy Cannon1960--1970TEoti-rai-kan22428224
Ted Kwalick1969--1976TEsfo-rai22228425

Let’s close with a look at the overall list:

Player
Years
POS
Teams
VBD
OVR RK
POS RK
Jerry Rice1985--2004WRsfo-rai-sea181911
LaDainian Tomlinson2001--2011RBsdg-nyj144321
Marshall Faulk1994--2005RBclt-ram130832
Jim Brown1957--1965RBcle129743
Emmitt Smith1990--2004RBdal-crd128654
Walter Payton1975--1987RBchi123665
Barry Sanders1989--1998RBdet115776
Randy Moss1998--2010WRmin-rai-nwe-oti114682
Peyton Manning1998--2010QBclt107191
Brett Favre1992--2010QBatl-gnb-nyj-min1061102
Tony Gonzalez1997--2011TEkan-atl1041111
Marvin Harrison1996--2008WRclt1019123
Terrell Owens1996--2010WRsfo-phi-dal-buf-cin1013134
Dan Marino1983--1999QBmia988143
Fran Tarkenton1961--1978QBmin-nyg921154
Curtis Martin1995--2005RBnwe-nyj900167
Lance Alworth1962--1972WRsdg-dal847175
Marcus Allen1982--1997RBrai-kan846188
Ricky Watters1992--2001RBsfo-phi-sea841199
Steve Largent1976--1989WRsea834206
Thurman Thomas1988--2000RBbuf-mia8282110
Edgerrin James1999--2009RBclt-crd-sea7892211
Eric Dickerson1983--1993RBram-clt-rai-atl7842312
Steve Young1985--1999QBtam-sfo774245
Cris Carter1987--2002WRphi-min-mia771257
Shannon Sharpe1990--2003TEden-rav769262
Shaun Alexander2000--2008RBsea-was7592713
Tiki Barber1997--2006RBnyg7462814
Lenny Moore1956--1967RBclt7442915
Torry Holt1999--2009WRram-jax739308
Priest Holmes1998--2007RBrav-kan7353116
Don Maynard1958--1973WRnyg-nyj-crd729329
Joe Montana1979--1994QBsfo-kan727336
Art Powell1960--1968WRphi-nyj-rai-buf-min7243410
Randall Cunningham1985--2001QBphi-min-dal-rav723357
Tom Brady2000--2011QBnwe720368
Charley Taylor1964--1977WRwas6883711
Drew Brees2001--2011QBsdg-nor688389
Chuck Foreman1973--1980RBmin-nwe6673917
John Elway1983--1998QBden6604010
O.J. Simpson1969--1979RBbuf-sfo6554118
Tim Brown1988--2004WRrai-tam6514212
Tony Dorsett1977--1988RBdal-den6324319
Roger Staubach1969--1979QBdal6304411
James Lofton1978--1993WRgnb-rai-buf-phi-ram6304513
Isaac Bruce1994--2009WRram-sfo6294614
Johnny Unitas1956--1973QBclt-sdg6254712
Raymond Berry1955--1967WRclt6194815
Bobby Mitchell1958--1968WRcle-was6184916
Larry Fitzgerald2004--2011WRcrd6135017
Ahman Green1998--2009RBsea-gnb-htx6105120
Terrell Davis1995--2001RBden6095221
Clinton Portis2002--2010RBden-was6025322
Kellen Winslow1979--1987TEsdg600543
Reggie Wayne2001--2011WRclt6005518
Roger Craig1983--1993RBsfo-rai-min5955623
Warren Moon1984--2000QBoti-min-sea-kan5925713
Antonio Gates2003--2011TEsdg592584
Sterling Sharpe1988--1994WRgnb5915919
Chad Ochocinco2001--2011WRcin-nwe5826020
Herschel Walker1986--1997RBdal-min-phi-nyg5756124
Leroy Kelly1964--1973RBcle5676225
Harold Carmichael1971--1984WRphi-dal5626321
Harold Jackson1969--1983WRram-phi-nwe-min-sea5586422
Bob Hayes1965--1975WRdal-sfo5576523
Todd Christensen1981--1988TErai-nyg552665
Steve Smith2001--2011WRcar5466724
Jimmy Smith1995--2005WRdal-jax5466825
Rod Smith1995--2006WRden5456926
Eddie George1996--2004RBoti-dal5447026
Michael Irvin1988--1999WRdal5447127
Jim Taylor1958--1967RBgnb-nor5427227
Lydell Mitchell1972--1980RBclt-sdg-ram5407328
Ken Anderson1971--1986QBcin5397414
Maurice Jones-Drew2006--2011RBjax5317529
Mark Clayton1983--1993WRmia-gnb5297628
Sonny Jurgensen1957--1974QBphi-was5287715
Dan Fouts1973--1987QBsdg5267816
Ottis Anderson1979--1992RBcrd-nyg5207930
Daunte Culpepper1999--2009QBmin-mia-rai-det5158017
Brian Westbrook2002--2010RBphi-sfo5158131
Steven Jackson2004--2011RBram5098232
Aaron Rodgers2005--2011QBgnb5078318
William Andrews1979--1986RBatl4998433
Paul Warfield1964--1977WRcle-mia4978529
Cliff Branch1972--1984WRrai4968630
Ernest Givins1986--1995WRoti-jax4948731
Tobin Rote1950--1964QBgnb-det-sdg-den4948819
Fred Biletnikoff1965--1978WRrai4948932
Lionel Taylor1960--1968WRchi-den-oti4899033
Hines Ward1998--2011WRpit4879134
Franco Harris1972--1984RBpit-sea4859234
Herman Moore1991--2001WRdet-nyg4839335
Adrian Peterson2007--2011RBmin4819435
Andre Rison1989--2000WRclt-atl-cle-jax-gnb-kan-rai4819536
Billy Howton1952--1963WRgnb-cle-dal4779637
Charley Hennigan1960--1966WRoti4749738
Gary Clark1985--1995WRwas-crd-mia4739839
Andre Reed1985--2000WRbuf-was4709940
Ricky Williams1999--2011RBnor-mia-rav47010036

Obviously fantasy football wasn’t widespread at all in the ’50s or ’60s, and wasn’t even very popular during most of Rice’s prime. So on a realistic level, Tomlinson and Faulk are probably the best fantasy football players of all-time, just because of the recent boom in the popularity of fantasy football. But from a statistical perspective — as is often the case — there is no topping Jerry Rice.

  1. I’ve decided to use a blend of the most common scoring options: 1 point per 20 yards passing, 5 points per passing touchdown, -2 points per interception, 6 points for rushing/receiving touchdowns, 1 point per 10 yards rushing/receiving, 0.5 points per reception. []
  2. Again, I’m using a blend here, but for baseline purposes I’m using QB12, RB24, WR32 and TE12, since the standard 12-team league starts 1 QB, 2 RBs, 2-3 WRs and 1 TE. []
  3. I’ve pro-rated production for those players who were part of seasons when the NFL did not have a 16-game schedule; I also changed the baseline numbers depending on the number of teams in the league, as a baseline of QB12 doesn’t make sense for 1950, when there were only 12 teams. []
{ 16 comments }
  • Shattenjager August 24, 2012, 3:27 am

    The two things that struck me the most looking at these list were (a) how well Marcus Allen came out and (b) Daunte Culpepper is that high from basically four seasons.

    (a) probably surprises me primarily because I was born in Colorado in ’85 and so grew up seeing Allen as a Chief before I started playing fantasy. That type of third-down/change-of-pace back didn’t usually have much value in those relatively pre-RBBC days. I obviously know about his time with the Raiders before that and that he had a few years of very high level production there, so it makes sense that such a peak with an extended career providing a little value almost every year adds up to a high ranking, but it’s still a surprise.

    (b) is just impressive. Culpepper’s production, regardless of who really deserves the lion’s share of the credit for it, at his peak, was as good as anybody’s. His ’04 season was great fun to me, since in the leagues where I was playing at that point, he outscored Peyton Manning, which just seemed to annoy people for some reason. I just always found it amusing.

    Reply
    • Andrew August 24, 2012, 3:55 am

      Marcus Allen didn’t really hace a “a few peak years”. The man was one of the best and most versatile RBs in the league for a solid decade, even if his carer stats look as though he started extremely well and then tapered off. the truth is, he wasn’t particularly well-liked whilst with the Raiders, and by the time he got on a team that would have given him the carries his talent demanded, he was too old for it. Allen was truly amazing to watch, and it’s a shame if some people think that his chief greatness (haha, see what I did there?) was longevity.

      Reply
      • Shattenjager August 24, 2012, 12:59 pm

        A. I did not say that he was only great for longevity. That’s a pure straw man.
        B. I did not say he had “a few peak years.” If you’re going to put it in quotes, you need to actually quote it. What I said was that he had “a few years of very high level production,” which is entirely accurate. His actual production DID start extremely well and then drop off (It didn’t really “taper off”–it dropped suddenly in ’86, then took another small drop in ’87, then stayed relatively stable thereafter.), no matter whether his talent level was still the same or not. Particularly considering that we’re talking about an article about fantasy football, it does not add anything to his production if he had more talent than that.
        He had 646 VBD per p-f-r (Which isn’t exactly the same as what Chase used here, but it is close enough for looking at the shape of a player’s fantasy career.) in his first four years, then 259 in the next 12 years (123 in the rest of his first decade in the league). That’s a really high four-year peak followed by a lot of years producing some but not a ton of value, which is exactly what I said before.

        Reply
  • Richie August 24, 2012, 1:40 pm

    I’m surprised that Emmitt Smith didn’t come out #1 for RB. For many years, he was so annoying, because it seemed like he would have 2 TD’s by the end of the first quarter almost every week.

    I noticed that your VBD numbers are different than on PFR. In fact, PFR shows Smith as slightly better in career VBD than LdT. Why is that? I see that you adjusted VBD for number of teams in the league, but wouldn’t that help Smith, since most of his career was in the 28 and 30-team NFL?

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart August 24, 2012, 3:20 pm

      I used 0.5 PPR, which is what bumps LT and Faulk ahead of Smith.

      Reply
      • Richie August 24, 2012, 7:25 pm

        Ah…that makes sense. I’ve never played PPR in a money league.

        Reply
  • Danish August 26, 2012, 7:40 pm

    Ah, this is great! Your tables are coded in a way that makes it very easy to paste them into Excel or Calc. This is very handy, if you want to quickly play around with the numbers yourself.

    Way to be userfriendly!

    Reply
  • Tim Truemper August 27, 2012, 10:02 am

    Of all the players listed, it was most surprising to me to see Tobin Rote listed. Was he the only QB to start and win an NFL and AFL championship? Regardless, he was an amazing player for his time — his career numbers were diminished some by his time with the CFL during his prime.

    Reply
  • Thom October 16, 2012, 12:20 am

    Great list- my only criticism is that the baseline seems to need adjusting as comparing the 32 WR skews the list too heavily in favor of elite wideouts.

    As an example, anyone who plays fantasy football would tell you that RB is the most valuable spot, and then QB before WR.

    Sure, Rice obviously crushed all the WRs during his playing time, just as Moss has. But the guy with Jerry Rice would have had less of a shot of winning his championship than the guy with Barry Sanders, or even Steve Young, since WRs are Feast or famine week to week, while RBs and QBs are far more consistent every Sunday.

    This list also doesn’t consider a flex spot; that might seem minor but it also means that you should be comparing RBs to some WRs.

    Furthermore, as anecdotal evidence shows that even though Calvin Johnson and Randy Moss (of the Patriots and Vikings) were expected to put up “Rice” type domination on a year to year basis, experts would at best make them the 8th or 9th pick.

    Also, PPR leagues are not the most popular and I recommend dropping that criterion altogether.

    In my opinion, you should change the WR to 24 and review the results. Because WR is so inconsistent if you look at 32 WRs probably 20-30% of the top 32 week to week wouldn’t even be in a team’s lineup.

    These are minor points, as I actually think other than the ridiculous over-valuation of WRs compared to other positions it is great to compare players of different eras.

    Reply
  • MacLeod November 29, 2012, 6:06 pm

    Thanks for this list!

    I am playing some “retro” fantasy football and this list will help a lot. We started in 1979 and are working our way forward, just about to start the 1992 season.

    I would love to see a list like this that ranks players according to how many times they were fantasy studs, starts, and duds. A combination of that list with the list you have provided would make an even more accurate measure of who the best fantasy players of all time were.

    Reply
    • Richie November 29, 2012, 9:00 pm

      How do you play “retro” fantasy football? Seems like you would already know to pick Dan Marino first in 1984, etc.

      Reply
      • MacLeod November 29, 2012, 9:36 pm

        It’s actually a lot of fun. Yes, you know who will score the most points over the whole season, but there is still quite a bit of mystery from week to week since it is head to head. In fact, the team that got Marino in 1984 only finished 9-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. It is also a challenge to decide who will be the most valuable.

        We also get 2 keepers so you have to keep an eye on the future as well. For example I just drafted Brett Favre for 1992, but he is only the 7th best QB that year, so I will probably not have a good year. But I am looking strong over then next several years with Favre as my QB.

        There are no backups, no trading, and no free agent pickups. Who you draft is who you have for that year. If they got injured that season, you don’t get points during the games they miss. It’s a 14 game season using weeks 15 and 16 as the playoffs.

        Anyway, it works well enough. And like I said, it is quite fun for me and the group that plays with me.

        Reply
        • Richie November 30, 2012, 3:23 pm

          Do you guys go on your honor not to look at the weekly scores before the draft, to see which players are consistently the best?

          Or does it just not matter, since scores are just high and low from week to week, and when you mix in ~10 players on a weekly roster, it would be impossible to maximize your score (plus the randomness of H2H schedules) enough to win all your games?

          How often do you play each “week” from the past? And how do you announce the results? Does your commish just send out an e-mail summarizing the results, or is something done to make it more dramatic?

          Reply
          • MacLeod November 30, 2012, 3:42 pm

            None of us are so into winning that we would spend as much time as that would take. But I imagine that it wouldn’t really matter for all of the reasons you suggest. The H2H schedules makes it really difficult to predict. I would think that you could gain at most 1 win a year by doing that. And don’t forget that the chances of you getting all 7 players you want in the draft is minimal.

            I am the commish of that league and how often I do a week just depends on how much time I have. I rarely if ever do it during baseball or football season since we have current fantasy seasons going on at that time. But I try to get a few seasons completed from January through March when nothing is going on.

            What is really fun about it is that our current fantasy league is done through espn, but officially it is done through excel sheets that I have made. I keep a very detailed history of our league on excel sheets also. We started the league in 2006, but my favorite players are from the 80’s and 90’s when I was a kid. I wanted, in particular, Barry Sanders to be apart of the history of our league, so this “retro” football counts as part of the history of our current league, so 2005 will be the last year we do it. That way, when I look at the all time stats sheet for our league, the likes of Barry, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, and Dan Marino will be on that page.

            As far as announcing the results, I just send an email out with the excel sheets of the standings, player stats, and week results when I am done with a particular week. Nothing too special. It’s just something fun to do during the hiatus between football and baseball that adds depth to our football league.

            Reply
  • brandon August 27, 2013, 12:31 pm

    Wasn’t Johnny U a place kicker as well? That should move him up a tad, no?

    Reply

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