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Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Implementing The WR-WR Plan

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.

Last week I outlined the reasons to take wide receivers early. Here's my method to putting this strategy into practice for typical leagues of 12-14 teams with non-PPR scoring that start just 1 QB (this could work for 2 WR or 3 WR leagues and with or without a flex):

1) WR-WR after the first three overall picks.

Despite the compelling math and my fear of risk in the first round, it's still best to take running backs with the first three picks in the draft. Because running backs can both catch and run the ball, an every-down running back in a great offense can still have an off-the-charts season in this passing era. Adrian Peterson in 2012 led fantasy football in Value-Based-Drafting (VBD) scoring and was 30 percent better than second place. You don't want to miss out on that type of player. Running backs in the top-five of ADP still average by far the most VBD. This year Peterson, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles all fit that mold. They're the focus of their offenses and have had seasons in the top two overall in VBD. Maybe you can make a case for Matt Forte as elite this season (I'm not, given he's 28 years old and the lack of finishing top-two at his position in any season), but after that I'm taking Calvin Johnson.

My goal with the WR-WR strategy is to get two of the top tier-WRs. This season I view that top tier as Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall. You could also argue Jimmy Graham fits the mold here, but he's a TE, so let's set that aside for now. You could throw Julio Jones into the top tier, but I'm hesitant given his foot injury. You also may want to widen the scope to include Jordy Nelson and Alshon Jeffery or maybe some others, but then you're starting to dip into a tier of receivers that don't have the long track record of production and/or health. Of course, getting two of these receivers has been more difficult this season. More on that later, but let's just assume here you can get two of my top five.

2) Quantity over quality at RB

After starting the draft with two wide receivers, start taking running backs frequently. Don't worry about getting the best of the mid-tier RBs as you're trying to make up for the lack of certainty of a top running back by spreading your risk. I look for two classes: veterans with starting jobs on whom folks have soured (Frank Gore, Trent Richardson, Steven Jackson) and upside backs with a clear shot at the starting job if things break their way (Bishop Sankey, Bernard Pierce, Andre Williams, Devonta Freeman, Terrance West, Carlos Hyde, etc.). The prices and ADPs of these RBs vary, and there are other names you may want to put in the mix. That's less important than you grab a group of them at good value. Some of these are going to be busts. But if only one or two RBs of the group become dependable starters, you've suddenly got a strong team with your WRs likely to be more productive than those of your competition each week.

3) Don't take a QB until very late

Because you're going to bulk up on running backs in the middle rounds, it's probably best you forgo a quarterback until the later rounds. I'm typically the last person to grab a quarterback in my leagues. This year I'd advocate that strategy if you are not going to take one of the top three QBs as there's just not much consensus about the rankings of QBs from Nos. 4-16.

4) Top TE or no TE

Similarly if you're bulking up on mid-tier running backs and forgoing quarterback, you typically want to wait on a TE, too. If you took Jimmy Graham early, then you are set. But otherwise this year I don't see a lot of difference between the No. 6 TE and No. 14 TE. Unlike with waiting on a QB, I do often dip into the second tier of TEs if I find a good value with Vernon Davis or Jordan Cameron ( Rob Gronkowski is never cheap enough for me with his heavy injury risk), but usually I'm happy to wait for an upside TE such as Kyle Rudolph, Zach Ertz or Jordan Reed.

5) Reserves only RB

If you are drafting before the final week of the preseason, I'd typically take as many reserve running backs as possible. Go for all the long shots (I'm fond of Jeremy Hill, James White, Christine Michael, C.J. Anderson, Stepfan Taylor, Knile Davis, Alfred Blue and Ka'Deem Carey). As long as your league has liberal free agent rules, allowing you to freely make weekly pickups, there are almost always wide receivers available for bye weeks or when injuries strike. Backup quarterbacks can be had as well. These options may not be great, but you won't be taking a zero. Meanwhile if any of these running backs find a starting or significant role, you've gained a huge asset. In what league have you ever been where running backs during the season are not in short supply? Plus running backs are typically binary in value they either have a steady role or are on the bench, so it's easy to drop them if they're out of the mix.

Benefits of this strategy:

-Optimal lineup construction

One benefit of the WR-WR approach is that historically wide receivers have seen a sharper decline in fantasy production after the early rounds than running backs. So those taking RBs early struggle to find productive WRs while those loading up with WRs early get RBs that are more productive. Here's a link to my 2009 study on the subject. However, in recent seasons the mid-tier WRs have improved their historical returns, and it's a trend worth monitoring.

-Avoid trying to pick WRs each week

Wide receiver production fluctuates week to week. Even Calvin Johnson had five games last season where he had fewer than 50 yards receiving (and only caught one touchdown in those games). Second- and third-tier wide receivers are even more maddening with their variance. Even if you have a strong stable of wide receivers, too frequently your bench will be outscoring your starters. The flip side is if you have two top WRs, you have the peace of mind of plugging them every week and not second guessing your matchup, knowing in the long run you'll get above average production from those two spots.

-Backup RBs are binary

With your running backs, it's easier to play match-ups because they are binary in nature with either a starting job/significant role or on the bench. With a running back it's easier to project a certain minimum of touches than a receiver even when both have a starting roles.

-Advantage of being first-in on free agent QBs

If you are the team that waited longest to take a quarterback and maybe skipped a backup, you have the advantage of being in position to grab the surprise quarterbacks early. The other teams are less likely to bid heavily on a Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater or another quarterback who wins a starting job early in the season. These teams are invested in their starters even if they begin the season slowly. And teams with backup quarterbacks typically don't drop them for another quarterback and waste FAAB dollars or use early waiver wire picks at a position where they already have a safety valve. Each of the last three seasons saw quality quarterbacks emerge that were available on the waiver wire early: Cam Newton in 2011, Russell Wilson in 2012 and Nick Foles in 2013. You'll likely be the one to bid most aggressively early if another such quarterback emerges. And if you don't get lucky on the waiver wire, you'll also likely be able to pick up a serviceable quarterback as teams who took backups are likely to drop a quarterback or trade them on the cheap when they have needs elsewhere on their rosters.

Let's take a look at the WR-WR strategy in practice. Looking at any one league is a small sample, but I think the team I drafted in the RotoWire Las Vegas League in July of 2013 is a good example. (Click here for the full draft board and details)

I held the 12th position in a 16-team league. I went with Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas with my first two picks. I then took a WR in the third round as well with Percy Harvin. I likely should have taken a running back with that third-round pick, but saw three top running backs I liked on the board in Le'Veon Bell, Montee Ball or Ahmad Bradshaw and figured one would be there in the fourth round. But all three were taken before I got to my next pick. Instead, I decided to keep going quantity over quality at running back by taking Ryan Mathews, Giovanni Benard, Ben Tate, Zac Stacy, Ronnie Hillman, Daniel Thomas, Montario Hardesty and Ryan Williams.

I took eight running backs. Every reserve spot on my roster was a running back. I had no backups at other positions. And I waited forever on a quarterback. The entire league was mocking me. I waited until the 11th round to take Jay Cutler. He was the 17th QB taken in a 16-team league. Admittedly my strategy was a little extreme. Who waits until other teams start taking backup quarterbacks to take his first quarterback in a 16-team league? And then takes no backup?

I finished with the best record at the end of the regular season and was second in points. I got hot in the playoffs and won the league title.

Cutler was actually decent for seven games before he got hurt. The lack of a backup QB had me in the market for a QB early on, and I nabbed Nick Foles with a big FAAB bid when he took over the starting job. With Harvin hurt, my third WR was a black hole all year. I had Riley Cooper and Tiquan Underwood on my playoff roster.

I'm sure I got lucky along the way, and a 16-team league in early July is a different beast, but this team highlights several key points for how the WR-WR strategy can work.

-WR-WR production

Despite problems elsewhere, my first two selections of the draft were money in the bank.

-Waiting on a QB Worked

Cutler was actually decent for seven games before he got hurt. And I had the first-in QB advantage to grab QBs early in the season. It paid off with Foles, who finished the season 11th in fantasy scoring among QBs.

-Lottery tickets at RB

I got lucky and hit on several. Ryan Mathews had a big bounce-back season. Bernard had a strong rookie season. Stacy really saved my team with his strong performance late in the year after he got the starting job. Tate was serviceable for a few games. Most of the other eight were busts I cut along the way.

There are some downsides to the WR-WR strategy. The biggest one is you need to hit on your mid-tier running backs. If you go quantity over quality, you've given your team a chance to succeed. But you can whiff, and when you do you have a large disadvantage at the running back position each week. Another downside is a team loaded with backup running backs frequently begins the season slowly. It takes awhile for a few of them to get roles due to injuries or poor performance from starters. And it's tough to have patience with a slow-starting fantasy team.

Another problem with the strategy for 2014 is more people have become enlightened to the strategy of taking wide receivers early. At MyFantasyLeague.com six WRs have a top-17 ADP in 12-team, non-PPR leagues compared to three last season. In the staff RotoWire Steak league auction we saw seven WRs go for more than $40, plus Jimmy Graham as well. Each of the previous two years saw only two receivers or tight ends go for more than $40. It's a PPR league, but the $100K RotoWire Online Championship is seeing seven WRs in the top 17 compared to four last season.

Still, even with inflated prices for top wide receivers, it's possible to pull off the WR-WR strategy. Here's example from the staff RotoWire Vegas League, a 12-team, non-ppr league I drafted in July. I was able to begin my team with A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall. I decided to take a TE early with Vernon Davis in the fourth round, but I still got a good stable of running backs in Reggie Bush, Stevan Ridley, Frank Gore, Trent Richardson, Knowshon Moreno, LeGarrette Blount and Jeremy Hill. I again was the last team in the league to take a quarterback, but still got Jay Cutler, who many rank in their top-10 for this season. I'm happy with the team.

But what do you do if the inflation at wide receiver increases even more? Is there an opportunity to buck the trend and go back to the RB-RB or RB-QB pattern of drafting of the past? We'll take a look at that next week.
My first story on strategy prompted a lot of questions and inquiries for more strategy information. Here's a good list of strategy stories written by myself and others that are relevant to this discussion: