In a majority of fantasy football leagues, competitors must choose just one quarterback, one tight end, one kicker and one team defense to start every week. However, multiple running backs and wide receivers are required in weekly starting lineups, both in the form of multiple position-specific slots and flex positions. Accordingly, the RB and WR positions earn extra focus, in draft preparation, on draft day and during the season on the waiver wire. We’ve studied the historical output of running back based on where they were drafted. Now, it’s time to do the same for the wide receivers.
If running back is key for having very few elite workhorse backs to carry the fantasy load, wide receiver is key for the sheer number of players you must start in a given week. In the pass-happy era of football, wide receivers get far more chances than they once did to make a fantasy impression, while several adjustments to the rules over the last decade have made receivers even more unstoppable.
Part of the consequences of this receiver-friendly era has been the regular emergence of fantasy stars out of the void of undrafted players. One season after Brandon Lloyd topped all receivers despite going undrafted in a vast majority of leagues and Stevie Johnson also came out of nowhere to crack the top 10, both Victor Cruz and Laurent Robinson put up elite stat-lines and likely propelled many teams to playoff berths and potential championship seasons.
Players like Lloyd and Cruz are obviously the exception, not the rule. But are the unknown WRs catching up to their more-celebrated counterparts? Let’s look at the data and see.
As in my previous study, I used data from My Fantasy League to rank every wide receiver selected in at least five percent of drafts on that site in each of the last five years by their Average Draft Position (”ADP”). Then, I gathered the fantasy points per game score of each player (”Avg”) according to FF Today, which has a great database for mining data from past seasons. In addition, I looked at the season total of each player and noted whether or not the player finished the top 10, top 20, top 30 or top 50 at his position. Note: this is non-PPR scoring, as were our RB data.
|2007-2011||Avg||Top 10?||Top 20?||Top 30?||Top 50?|
As with the RBs, the top 10 prove to be the safest selections on average, and even manage to perform like top-10 players 52 percent of the time, an improvement on their RB counterparts. However, unlike in our first study, where we found that the “11-20″ RBs and “21-30″ RBs were virtually identical, we see that there is a clear dropoff down through the table when looking for starting wide receivers.
After the top 20 receivers come off the board, there is a very small chance you’ll be able to find a top-10 receiver. While we found that one in five running backs came from the group of players drafted 21st through 30th at their position, here we see that just eight percent of receivers can claim the same. Less than eight percent of all receivers drafted after the 30th WR can hope to become WR1s.
Looking at the Top 20 and Top 30 columns, we can see a pretty consistent downward trend of players to make each milestone. However, the data in the “36-45″ and “41-50″ rows suggest that there isn’t much different in being a WR drafted 36th through 40th and one drafted 46th through 50th. That’s something to remember when building depth at the position — once the top 30 guys are gone, it probably makes sense to wait a few rounds to fill out your bench. By doing so, you also gain the tangential benefit of having lesser-rated guys to cut when it comes time to make a move on a September breakout at receiver in hopes of grabbing the next big thing.
Like we did when we looked at RBs, we see a shocking bust rate of 40 percent among receivers selected 11th through 20th. The main difference is that save for the “16-25″ group of receivers, all receivers after the top 15 have a pretty high rate of failure. With the RBs, we saw most of the backups outproducing the RB2s in terms of avoiding busting. While the 21st through 25th receivers don’t score quite as much as those drafted 11th through 15th, they appear to bust far less, and near the top of the draft, solidity is a key trait you should be targeting.
While the “unknown WR” has had a few success stories in recent years, it appears that the frequency of finding elite talent is pretty low, and it’s not worth building the expectation of landing undrafted WRs as starters later in the season into our draft plan. After all, there were just five undrafted receivers to make the top 20 over the past five years, though it should be noted that four of those cases (the gentlemen discussed at the beginning of the article) have come in the last two years.
It looks like the strategy one should consider is to have three WRs by the time the top 25 at the position in terms of ADP are off the board. The goal is to grab two in the top 10 and one in that 21-25 range, but if that’s not feasible, get one in the top 10 and grab your next two in the 16-25 bracket (preferably in the 21-25 range if you think you can nail it). After that’s accomplished, fill out your bench with a couple of late-round picks who have about as much chance of breaking through as any backups (but be prepared to cut bait if other potential elite WRs emerge from the dregs in the first few weeks).
When combined with what we know about running backs, typical drafters who want to make the safest play will likely be targeting a RB-WR-WR-RB-WR-QB-RB run in the first seven rounds. This should net one top-10 running back, two top-10 receivers, one running back from the 21-25 range, one receiver from the 21-25 range, a top-10 QB and a RB in the 31-35 range (or maybe a bit higher). However, always be open to adapting with your particular draft as it moves through each round, and be prepared to make changes to this plan on the fly, especially if you’re somewhere in the middle of a snake draft and can take advantage of the value present without waiting too long to pick again.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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