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Taking a 1st-Round WR Isn't as Crazy as You Think
By Peter Schoenke
RotoWire Staff Writer


By now you know the basic strategies experts preach for fantasy football: Wait on quarterbacks, don't sit your stars ... and draft running backs early and often.

But changes in how NFL teams use running backs and a check of recent history show that taking running backs early and often isn't always optimal. In fact, taking a wide receiver early in your draft may be the best strategy despite the conventional wisdom.

Six years ago I did a comprehensive study to figure out how good the conventional wisdom was during fantasy football drafts. I used every expert ranking I could find from the 1990s to compare preseason rankings to actual performance. While the data confirmed many basic strategies, there was one stat that stuck out: Wide receivers are the safest first-round picks. After we launched Databasefootball.com, a historical stats site for football, I decided to revisit the topic. This time we got a more accurate gauge of preseason rankings by using the average draft position (ADP) data of thousands of leagues since 1998 from MyFantasyLeague.com that we've incorporated into the DatabaseFootball.com site.

Position Draft Position Avg. VBD Bust Percentage
QB Top 5 -36 50%
QB Top 15 34 26%
QB Top 25 35 25%
QB Top 50 2 40%
QB Top 75 1 39%
WR Top 5 No WR taken in Top 5
WR Top 15 75 0%
WR Top 25 59 11%
WR Top 50 32 26%
WR Top 75 21 36%
RB Top 5 137 7%
RB Top 15 101 14%
RB Top 25 94 14%
RB Top 50 76 18%
RB Top 75 63 23%
TE Top 15 No TE taken in Top 5
TE Top 50 58 8%
TE
Top 75
28
27%

Using the ADP data, we compared the consensus preseason rankings to the final year-end numbers to see if a player was worthy of his draft slot.

We used a typical fantasy league scoring system (4 points passing TD, 6 points rushing or receiving TD, 1 point per 20 yards passing, 1 point per 10 yards rushing or receiving and no points gained or lost for interceptions, turnovers or receptions) and then compared a player's fantasy points against the rest of the players at each position that season. In other words, we compared wide receivers in 2001 with other receivers from 2001, quarterbacks from 2004 with other quarterbacks from 2004. Thus, each player's value was calculated on the basis of what he offered compared to the other options at his position that season. (This comparison of players above the replacement level is also called value based draft value or VBD).

The historical numbers show why taking a wide receiver early in your draft may be the optimal strategy. First, taking a wide receiver helps minimize your risk. The conventional wisdom is to minimize risk in the early rounds and look for players with risk, but explosive potential, later in the draft. Although top receivers average fewer fantasy points above replacement than top running backs (26 percent less than RBs when taken in the top-15 overall picks), there are also fewer busts. Of the 18 wide receivers taken with an ADP in the top 15 since 1998, none has been a bust.

While wide receivers might be the safest picks early in the draft, running backs are still the fantasy powerhouses. They get the most touches in the offense with multiple ways to score points (in the air and on the ground). Running backs average more fantasy points than receivers at almost any point in the draft. So why would taking anyone other than a running back early make sense? For a 12-team league with a snake draft that starts two running backs and two wide receivers, a comparison of strategies shows taking a wide receiver makes sense for all but the top-six draft positions. Since the drop-off at wide receiver is faster in a draft, it makes more sense to take a wide receiver early and then running backs later. The early receivers hold their value while teams forced to take receivers in later rounds see a stronger decline in fantasy points than those who take running backs late.

I know what you're thinking ... that can't be true because Randy Moss and Terrell Owens were high picks in 2008, and they killed many fantasy teams. However, we define a bust as a player who didn't score more fantasy points than the worst potential starter (the top 24 wide receivers in a 12-team league that starts two wide receivers). In that scenario, Moss (10th) and Owens (9th) still were viable starters for their fantasy teams last season.

All 18 of those receivers taken in the top 15 since 1998 would have been worthy starters in a 12-team league with 24 starting receivers. Sure, some of them may have been disappointments compared to where they were drafted, but running backs fared worse. Over the same period, 14 percent of running backs with an ADP in the top 15 didn't score enough points to be worthy of the top 24 running backs. The difference was smaller as we moved out of the first round with 11 percent of receivers as busts in the top 25 picks compared to 14 percent of running backs in the top 25.

At face value, this makes some sense. Running backs and quarterbacks take harder hits, are involved in more plays and thus carry more injury risk. Quarterbacks, for example, have the highest attrition rate with 26 percent of those with an ADP in the top 15 turning into busts, and 39 percent of those with an ADP in the top 75 picks becoming busts.

Year Player ADP Fantasy Points Position Ranking Overall Ranking
2001 Randy Moss 7.6 187 5 27
1999 Randy Moss 7.6 216 2 14
2008 Randy Moss 9.9 166 10 33
2000 Marvin Harrison 11.1 225 2 18
2002 Randy Moss 11.1 185 5 24
2002 Terrell Owens 11.5 221 2 12
2004 Randy Moss 12.2 155 19 55
1998 Antonio Freeman 12.8 226 2 13
2001 Marvin Harrison 12.9 242 1 11
2003 Marvin Harrison 12.9 187 5 18
2000 Randy Moss 13.4 233 1 17
2005 Randy Moss 14.0 148 15 46
1999 Antonio Freeman 14.3 143 20 56
2008 Terrell Owens 14.5 168 9 31
2002 Marvin Harrison 15.0 239 1 10
2006 Steve Smith 15.6 176 8 24
2003 Terrell Owens 15.7 164 12 30
2004
Marvin Harrison
15.9
201
5
19

The top-six draft picks are exceptions - some years those spots yield players who put up fantasy points that go off the charts. Think of LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. LT had an NFL record of 31 touchdowns, plus 1,815 rushing yards, 508 receiving yards and even two touchdown passes that year. He was taken in the top three in nearly every draft. In fact, of the 15 highest scoring fantasy seasons, 60 percent of those players have been taken in the first four picks. If you're drafting in the top four especially, the potential for a running back that almost single-handily wins you the league validates the conventional wisdom.

DRAFT POSITION --->
Order of players taken 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12   Overall
RB-RB-WR-WR 161 184 191 237 217 157 118 215 199 222 170 141   259
RB-WR-RB-WR 183 189 156 257 246 166 122 187 134 226 184 226   268
RB-WR-WR-RB 174 209 169 216 221 132 191 258 158 221 153 186   406
WR-RB-RB-WR 113 107 176 242 223 132 146 221 195 308 242 193   294
WR-WR-RB-RB 110 116 180 206 191 147 237 231 159 341 200 219   429
WR-RB-WR-RB
103
128
189
201
198
98
215
292
219
303
210
153

433
* Average fantasy points above replacement for the four players taken

Overall, however, the gap between what running backs and wide receivers produce is narrowing, making an early running back pick less of an advantage. A wide receiver with an ADP in the top 25 has returned 63 percent of the fantasy points of a similarly drafted running back since 1998. Since 2005, that percentage has climbed to 70. Part of this is due to the increasing division of carries between multiple running backs to reduce wear on starters. Since 1998, there has been an average of 9.7 running backs per season with more than 300 carries. There were six in 2007, and five in 2008. Moreover, we based our research on 2-RB, 2-WR leagues. With many, if not most, leagues now requiring three starting wideouts, their increased scarcity makes them even more valuable compared to backs.

Granted, some of the sample sizes in these comparisons are small. And it's harder to pick a top running back or receiver than ADP data would imply. And many leagues don't fit our model in terms of the number of starters or how the draft snakes. However, if you pick in the second half of the first round, taking one or even two receivers with your top two picks often defies the conventional wisdom and pays off.

Article first appeared 6/15/09