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Is the WR Market Back to Normal?

The trend in fantasy drafts offer a discount to wide receivers.

By Peter Schoenke

Fantasy Football Best Ball Strategy

This article is part of our fantasy football help series.

Before the fantasy football season begins each summer, I try to take a step back and take a broader view of the market for players and what strategy I should employ. I believe draft strategy is important because in fantasy football once you choose a position in the first round of your draft, you've chosen a path for the rest of your team. Take a QB and you'll be behind on gathering WR and RB, for example. Similarly, once you make a big purchase in an auction, you've limited what you can do at other positions. What path is best?

It's also important to take a global view to see if the market is overreacting to last year's stats because it may provide opportunity. Take 2012, for example. When five of the top 10 fantasy scorers by VBD (Value Based Drafting, which is fantasy points vs. position) in 2011 were quarterbacks and two tight ends were in the top 12 (Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham had monster seasons), the market overreacted in the 2012 preseason. A record five quarterbacks went in the top 15 of ADP and both Gronkowski and Graham were taken in the top 20. The NFL hadn't changed and QBs and TEs were not suddenly the best fantasy football options. Sure enough, the 2012 season was dominated by running backs and wide receivers with only one quarterback finishing in the top 10 of fantasy scoring (as measured by VBD) and no tight end in the top 25.

Similarly last summer saw an overreaction to a terrible year for running backs in 2015. Seven running backs were taken in the top 15 of ADP in 2015 and five ended up as busts. As a result, as many as 10 wide receivers were taken in the top 15 of PPR drafts in 2016. (Despite my preference for WRs, I noted that RBs last year were undervalued and took more RBs in my leagues than usual.) It was an overreaction that didn't pan out as no wide receiver finished in the top nine of VBD by year's end.

Early Market Trends

Last season there were no busts among the top running backs as all seven taken in the top 15 of ADP finished the year with positive VBD value (yes, even Todd Gurley). Seven of the top-10 fantasy producers last year as measured by VBD were RB last season. The top WR (Mike Evans) was 10th. The NFL as a whole also ran the ball more last season. Average team rushing yards per game increased slightly (108.9 vs. 108.8 in 2015). The percentage of offense gained by running the ball also increased to 31.07 percent from 30.84 percent in 2015. And finally, there were 11 running backs with 250 or more carries – the most since 2013.

Similarly, it may have been the worst year ever for top wide receivers. Of the five wide receivers taken in the top 15 overall of ADP, two were busts (which I define as not finishing in the top 36 in fantasy points at the WR position by year's end). That's significant because since 1998, just seven of the 45 receivers taken in the top 15 of ADP were busts.

Performance of Wide Receivers Taken in Top 15 ADP Since 1998

YEARPLAYERADPVBDFINAL POSITION RANK
1998 Antonio Freeman 12.77 103 2
1999 Randy Moss 7.62 97 2
1999 Antonio Freeman 14.26 24 20
2000 Randy Moss 13.4 123 1
2000 Marvin Harrison 11.06 115 2
2001 Marvin Harrison 12.87 110 1
2001 Randy Moss 7.59 55 5
2002 Marvin Harrison 15.02 119 1
2002 Terrell Owens 11.46 101 2
2002 Randy Moss 11.14 65 5
2003 Marvin Harrison 12.93 83 5
2003 Terrell Owens 15.72 60 12
2004 Marvin Harrison 15.91 74 5
2004 Randy Moss 12.24 28 19
2005 Randy Moss 13.98 32 15
2006 Steve Smith 15.63 60 8
2008 Terrell Owens 14.51 53 9
2008 Randy Moss 9.85 51 10
2009 Larry Fitzgerald 8.71 75 5
2009 Andre Johnson 12.75 100 1
2009 Randy Moss 13.26 92 2
2010 Andre Johnson 6.92 56 6
2010 Larry Fitzgerald 12.19 35 16
2010 Randy Moss 14.26 -46 67
2011 Roddy White 13.21 62 8
2011 Andre Johnson 13.56 -54 71
2011 Calvin Johnson 15.65 149 1
2012 Calvin Johnson 6.63 149 1
2013 Calvin Johnson 9.32 9.32 3
2014 Calvin Johnson 4.16 43.5 38
2014 Demaryius Thomas 7.52 115.7 9
2014 Dez Bryant 9.08 115.8 8
2014 A.J. Green 9.51 28.1 47
2014 Julio Jones 13.1 83.2 17
2014 Brandon Marshall 14.71 7.9 74
2015 Antonio Brown 8.61 126 1
2015 Demaryius Thomas 14.19 40 13
2015 Odell Beckham 14.31 99 5
2015 Juio Jones 15.5 113 2
2015 Dez Bryant 11.4 -73 79
2016 Antonio Brown 2.4 81 3
2016 Odell Beckham 4.67 69 4
2016 Julio Jones 6.74 53 6
2016 A.J. Green 11.57 -104 35
2016 DeAndre Hopkins 12.5 -97 38

With those two trends last season, I would expect drafts to be heavily invested in running backs this season. However, that's not exactly how it's shaping up. While RB dominates the top three spots in almost every format, wide receivers are still being taken at a historically high rate. In standard scoring formats, three of the top-10 picks by ADP are receivers. While that has declined from last year's all-time high of five receivers in the top-10 picks, it's still the fourth highest ever. And 18 wide receivers are being taken in the top 40 of ADP in standard leagues, which is the same as last year's high-water mark.

Top 12 of ADP by Position

YEARWRRBQBTE
2017 4 8 2 1
2016 6 7 1 1
2015 5 7 2 1
2014 6 8 0 1
2013 1 12 2 0
2012 1 9 5 0
2011 3 9 3 0
2010 4 8 3 0
2009 3 10 2 0
2008 2 10 3 0
2007 1 13 1 0
2006 2 12 1 0

Wide receivers are more prevalent in the top 15 picks of PPR formats and in ADP listings that mix formats (such as ESPN and Yahoo).

LEAGUEWRRBQBTEFORMAT
NFFC 8 6 1 0 12-team PPR, starting 3 WR + Flex
MFL 4 8 2 1 12-team non PPR
ESPN 8 7 0 0 10-team
Yahoo 6 9 0 0 12-team non PPR (but includes many formats)

League Fundamentals Haven't Changed

Despite a strong season for running backs in 2015 and a slight increase in rushing by the league last season, the overall trend is that the league passes the ball more. There was just one running back last season with 300 carries, a number that has consistently trended downward since 2002. The number of running backs with 250 carries has also steadily declined despite last year's uptick.

YEAR300+ RUSH RB250+ RUSH RBTEAM RUSH YPGRUSH YD % of OFFENSE
2002 10 19 116.1 35.36
2003 9 16 117.9 37.04
2004 13 17 116.6 35.65
2005 10 14 112.5 35.60
2006 10 17 117.3 36.42
2007 6 12 110.9 34.10
2008 5 13 116.0 35.44
2009 6 9 116.7 34.82
2010 7 11 114.5 34.07
2011 2 12 117.1 33.77
2012 5 14 115.9 33.38
2013 2 11 112.9 32.39
2014 2 8 111.3 32.54
2015 1 5 108.8 30.84
2016 1 11 108.9 31.07

The NFL has made numerous rule changes the last decade to help the passing game. NFL teams also have tried to limit the workload of running backs to keep them fresh and healthy. Those trends are not changing despite last year's increase in rushing yards.

While there have been more busts among top wide receivers the last three years, some of that may be that more marginal wide receivers are being pushed into the top two rounds of fantasy drafts than year's past. There's been just one bust among the top three receivers as measured by ADP the last three years.

As a result, I still believe taking a RB early puts you behind the eight ball most of the rest of the draft. I'm a big believer in taking WRs early. (Here's a link to my case for the WR-WR strategy.) The theory is that wide receivers are safer picks earlier in the draft. Running backs who become starters due to injury are available late in drafts. And if you wait on wide receivers, you have a hard time figuring out your best wide receivers each week as more marginal receivers are less consistent.

The good news is that the market for wide receivers has improved after three years of historic inflation, but it hasn't bounced back as much as I'd hoped after last year's strong performance of running backs. However, that could change if rookie running backs like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey get a lot of hype in training camp, or if there's suddenly buzz about Jordan Howard and Melvin Gordon. If so, I'll be prepared to grab better values on receivers in the first two rounds.