Decline of the WR1 – How 2017 Was Different Than 2016 and Why It Matters

2017 took many great people from us far too soon: Mary Tyler Moore, Adam West, and the Stud Wide Receiver all passed. The 2017 season saw the lowest average PPR points by a top 12 wide receiver in over a decade. But why?

Why the Stud Receiver Disappeared

Given the complex nature of the NFL, there are many factors that contributed to the wide receiver apocalypse of 2017. I’ll shed light on what caused it and explore whether or not there will be a WR bounceback in 2018.

pprpointsf

This is average PPR points per receiver across the WR1 group by year. Calling 2017 a wide receiver apocalypse is no exaggeration. My first thought as to the reason behind this was something I’ve heard before, “The three-WR set is robbing studs of their targets.” This may have been the case in 2016, another bad year for the stud receiver. Our top-12 WRs posted a near 10-year low in terms of market share of air yards and market share of targets.

dominance2f

However, that was quickly corrected in 2017 as No. 1 WRs regained control of their teams’ passing volume and everything seemed to be right in the world. The proliferation of 11 personnel sets didn’t kill the stud receiver, his offense did.

It did in part at least. The 2016 season saw a large falloff in WR1 yards and receptions, but this was due to low market share. Even with 2017 restoring the market share, the yardage and catches didn’t return. That’s because the NFL as a whole experienced its worst season for total passing yardage, completions, and touchdowns in years. So even though the stud receivers dominated their respective offenses, the overall pie was smaller.

yardsandrec2

This led the raw yardage and reception numbers to look very similar to the 2016 wide receiver recession. That still doesn’t explain the chasm between 2016 WR1 scoring and 2017 WR1 scoring. The last piece of the WR recession puzzle is touchdowns. And this brings us to the most liable culprit of the death of the WR1: the pass-catching running back.

It makes sense that a decrease in league-wide passing touchdowns would hurt WR output. But the extent to which they lost out on TDs is troubling. Your favorite RBs, Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, and Zach Zenner1 were the ones holding the hammer. Running backs commanded their highest share of league-wide receiving TDs in the last nine years.

tddistributionf

The fluctuations depicted in this graph amount to six percent from the best year to the worst for the wideouts. While this may not seem extraordinary, changes of this magnitude on a league-wide scale are arguably the largest factor in the WR depression. In addition to runners, tight ends put pressure on the receivers as well, but that has happened before. Combine this with the new style of running back that is a featured element of the passing game and you have the Death of the Stud Wide Receiver. 2017 featured the emergence of more running backs like Christian McCaffrey and Kamara who specialize in receiving. It also showed the ability of bellcows like Gurley to dominate as receiving threats.

receiving screener

Coaches proved very willing to provide their RBs ample opportunity. With this also came our great WR depression and the worst performance by the WR1 cohort in nearly a decade.

The TL;DR of 2017 Receivers

The 2016 season was still a part of the passing boom that had been going on for a few years, and WR1 production was down due to a downturn in target share for the elite. This fallout seems to be an anomaly based on the quick return to market share dominance the 2017 WR1 group showed. However, 2017 revealed a different issue. The WR1 bottom line was pressured from all sides. League passing was down while RBs captured receiving touchdowns like never before.

Just Get to the Part Where You Tell Me What to Do

Got it, sorry, we’re almost there.

Coming into this research,2 I assumed WRs would be due for a large bounceback in 2018. Wheels up on Zero RB and dominating fantasy leagues with five straight receiver picks to start off every draft. But this might not be the case.

The NFL is still a passing league. That won’t change anytime soon. Sure, in the context of the past six years, quarterbacks had a rough go of things in 2017. Zooming out farther in a decade-spanning view, passing the ball is still the most effective way to matriculate the ball downfield. Because of this, I expect to see QBs rebound in 2018. We aren’t returning to the days of Jerome Bettis or Larry Johnson. However, we might be moving into the age of Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson. That is to say that we might be moving into an era where the stud WRs can have noticeable dips in production due to RBs that catch the ball and run routes as well as slot receivers.

Why wouldn’t teams want more of this? Getting Jerick McKinnon (running a 4.41 40-yard dash) covered by a linebacker on routes or creating more opportunities to get Kareem Hunt in open space is a great way to create advantages for an offense. This aspect of 2017 is here to stay. With another star-studded RB class on the way, competition for TDs will be even tighter for receivers.

This isn’t to say the WR is actually dead – far from it. But when making projections, drafting, or evaluating teams, think about the way that an RB is going to be used in the passing game and how that affects the receivers, especially receivers that will cost a lot of draft capital. Zero RB will still be a viable strategy but be cognizant of how Alvin Kamara turned “Michael Thomas caught over 100 passes for 1200 yards!” into “But he only caught five TDs.” Also, be sure to stay tuned for the follow up where I’ll outline some receivers who can overcome the pitfalls that plagued receivers in 2017 as well as some other interesting notes on the receiver apocalypse.

  1. Yes, this is the third name I associate with the term “favorite running backs.”  (back)
  2. Basically just an inordinate amount of time spent in Excel  (back)
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