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Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: The Case For Going WR-WR

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of RotoWire.com. He's been elected to the hall of fame for both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and Fantasy Sports Writers Association and also won the Best Fantasy Baseball Article on the Internet in 2005 from the FSWA. He roots for for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and T-Wolves.

There are plenty of paths to victory in fantasy football. There's no one full-proof strategy. But a strategy focused on wide receivers has been a winner for me three of the last four years. It appears to be based on solid historical data. I'll examine the outlook for the strategy in 2014 in a series of articles, as well as look at its pitfalls, and recent trends.

Using a wide receiver-focused strategy last season in nine leagues, I made the playoffs in eight and won four. It's a small sample, but still impressive. And I had winning years two of the previous three seasons with this strategy. And the amazing thing is last year none of my winning teams had any of the best fantasy players: Peyton Manning, LeSean McCoy or Jimmy Graham.

The core of the strategy is simple in that it tries to avoid risk with your most expensive players and embrace risk elsewhere. Fantasy football is chaos. It's hard to forecast the success of any player who depends on 10 other teammates working in unison. It's also a brutal game. Injuries happen to seemingly invincible players every season (Tom Brady in 2008, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson in 2011).

Last season, six of the top 12 players on everyone's draft board (as determined by Average Draft Position (ADP) at MyFantasyLeague for non-ppr, redraft leagues) were "Busts" - players who didn't finish the season as a starter in a 12-team league that starts two running backs, three wide receivers, one quarterback, one tight end, one team defense and one kicker (top-24 RB, top-36 WR, top-12 QB and top-12 TE).

If the industry consensus is no better than a coin flip to determine who to take in the first round, what can you count on? It turns out there's a strategy that offers calm in this chaos: taking wide receivers in the first round. Of course, that strategy comes with tradeoffs later in the draft, but before we consider those take a look at one stunning trend.

Performance of Wide Receivers Taken in Top 15 ADP Since 1998
Year Name
ADP VBD position ranking
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

Since 1998, only two receivers taken in the top 15 overall of ADP have been busts. Andre Johnson only played seven games in 2011 due to hamstring injuries. Randy Moss had a bizarre season in 2010 where he began the season as the No. 1 wideout on the Patriots and was shockingly traded two times. That's it. One injury. One fluky fall from grace. And these receivers were not just clearing the minimum, they were usually top players at their position. Only seven of the 29 receivers finished outside the top 10 at the position at the end of the season. That means you had a slightly better than 75 percent chance of getting a top-10 receiver by taking a top wideout. And 16 of the top 28 receivers finished in the top-five overall at their position at the end of the season. That means you had a 59 percent chance of landing a top-five receiver. The tradeoff is that running backs have more upside in the first round. A running back taken in the top five overall had an average Value Based Draft (VBD) total of almost double the wide receivers taken in the top 15. From 1998-2006, running backs taken in the top 15 overall had 33 percent more VBD than wide receivers in the top 15.

Peformance By Position & ADP Since 2006

POS ADP VBD Avg. VBD Players Bust Bust Percentage
QB Top 5 -108.45004 -36.15 3 1 0.33
QB Top 15 981 49.04 20 3 0.15
QB Top 25 1912 57.95 33 4 0.12
QB Top 50 1604 25.47 63 20 0.32
QB Top 75 -331 -3.34 99 42 0.42
WR Top 5
0

0
WR Top 15 934 71.84 13 2 0.15
WR Top 25 3115 63.57 49 6 0.12
WR Top 50 5766 39.76 145 31 0.21
WR Top 75 5404 22.33 242 82 0.34
RB Top 5 1807 78.58 23 3 0.13
RB Top 15 3617 48.88 74 21 0.28
RB Top 25 4355 38.54 113 38 0.34
RB Top 50 4156 22.11 188 76 0.4
RB Top 75 2566 9.98 257 118 0.46
TE Top 15
0

0
TE Top 25 201 67.13 3 0 0
TE Top 50 357 20.97 17 5 0.29
TE Top 75 574 12.47 46 16 0.35
K Top 125 -63 -4.5 14 10 0.71
K Top 200 -2468 -21.1 117 93 0.79

But since 2006 with the many rules changes favoring the passing game, that relationship has changed. Running backs don't have as much upside as before. While the previous decade of fantasy football saw running backs such as Priest Holmes, Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis and Edgerrin James almost single-handedly win fantasy leagues, those types of running backs have declined. From 2006 to 2013 we've seen five running backs have seasons over 180 VBD (.625 per season), compared to 13 (1.625 per season) from 1998-2005.

A first-round running back also doesn't outperform a wide receiver any more. From 2005 to 2013, wide receivers in the top 15 of ADP earned an average of 20 percent more VBD than running backs in the top 15 of ADP. The relationship has flipped. Wide receivers are safer in the first round and return more upside. The exception may still be the top running backs as those taken in the top five of ADP have returned the largest VBD of any position. No wide receiver has been in the top five of ADP in any season, so it's hard to compare, and we're dealing with small sample sizes in just nine seasons. But the very top running backs continue to deliver, if at a lesser rate, than a decade or two decades ago.

All of those trends make a compelling case for a strategy that takes wide receivers early and running backs and quarterbacks late. Next week we'll look at putting the wide receiver strategy into practice.