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Wide Receiver Is the New Running Back: Redraft Strategy for the Passing Revolution, Part 7

Welcome to my NFL Passing Revolution series, where I examine how the NFL’s shift towards efficient pass-heavy offenses has affected the landscape of fantasy football.

In Part 6, I looked at some holistic trends for the wide receiver position. Ironically, the passing revolution seems to have had a negative overall effect on wide receivers’ efficiency due to the swelling number of receivers deployed across the league. However, this decline in efficiency also makes high-target volume WR1s more valuable than they’ve ever been.

Still, the data from Part 6 is rather noisy. Global WR data is rife with volatility from season to season, which limits our ability to deduce which kinds of receivers are best-positioned to excel in 2019 and beyond. Nonetheless, in this article, I intend to sweep away some of that statistical clutter. Indeed, contrary to my analysis in Part 6, I contend that wide receivers are actually the most stable, most consistent skill position group in fantasy football.

Be sure to check out this series’ previous installments:

Bringing Order Out of Chaos

“Before the ocean and the earth appeared – before the skies had overspread them all – the face of Nature in a vast expanse was naught but Chaos uniformly waste. It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap.”

– Ovid, Metamorphoses

I’ve chosen to lead with a quote from Greek cosmogony, in part because the subsequent discussion is such a hard-pivot from my previous analysis; and also in part because I just love Greek mythology.

At any rate, this article is going to focus on wide receivers’ consistency. Yes, I fully understand the irony in that statement: I just spent 1000-plus words in Part 6 discussing how volatile wide receiver data is from year to year, and now I’m saying they’re consistent somehow. Just bear with me: I’ll help bring some order out of the chaos.

WR Target Share is Not Increasing

There is one trend you may have glossed over from the dataset in Part 6 (mostly because I intentionally chose not to address it). The NFL’s increase in pass attempts per season has not translated to an increase in wide receiver target share. Intuition may suggest that as teams pass more often, receivers would consolidate a higher percentage of targets. But instead — depending on where you choose to slice up the data — WR target share has either marginally decreased or stayed flat since 2002.

From 2003 to 2018, league-wide pass attempts increased 7.1%. Meanwhile, wide receivers’ raw target total only increased 4.9%. From 2003 to 2011 – the stretch of time reporting the greatest increase in passing league-wide – pass attempts increased 5.6% while wide receivers’ raw target total improved by 3.2%.

We may have expected that wide receivers would command an increased share of these additional pass attempts, but that simply has not happened. Instead, running backs and tight ends have siphoned away these additional targets while wide receivers’ target total has remained relatively stable compared to other skill position groups.

WR’s Internal Distribution is Also Remarkably Stable

But that’s not all. Year-to-year targets, receiving yards and PPR points have also remained consistent within the wide receiver population from tier to tier. Trust me: I tried breaking down receivers into all possible sub-classifications based on as many parameters as I could, and the data remained flat – no matter how I cut it. The wide receiver position is the simply most stable in the NFL.

Take the following charts as examples:

For each statistic in the above charts, I report the stat-share for performers in each tier. For example, for “1 to 10” in the targets table, I’m reporting the target share (among wide receivers) for the top-10 players in target total in the given season. Or, as another example, for “11 to 20” in the receiving yards table, I’m reporting the receiving yards share (among wide receivers) for the 11th through 20th receiving yards leaders in the given season.

What’s remarkable about these charts is not the numbers themselves; it’s how uniform they are from season to season. It’s almost as if there’s a statistical ceiling for each category that prevents wide receiver tiers from ascending or descending dramatically from year to year. To fully understand just how placid this data is, go back to any of the previous articles in this series and contrast wide receiver data with the huge changes we’ve seen at tight end or running back over the same span.

ADP Proves Wide Receivers’ Predictability

This uniformity makes wide receivers a unique group in the fantasy sphere. They are by far the most predictable fantasy performers. This predictability is not just reported in the raw data – it’s also reflected in average draft position (ADP).

After observing how predictable wide receivers groups were from year to year, I went through reputable ADP reports (which go back to 2010) to investigate how accurate the public is in identifying wide receiver value. After compiling all of the ADP data, I correlated WR ADP position rank with end-of-season position rank. Then, I did the same thing for all other positions for reference.

These resultant correlations backed up my suspicion that wide receiver is the most predictable position group in fantasy football. Wide receiver correlations – both year-to-year and cumulative – are consistently among the strongest and least variable of any position group.

Quarterbacks oscillate between strong and weak correlational coefficients from season to season. Tight ends report similar variability but at a lower overall magnitude of correlational strength. Running backs used to be very predictable (from 2010 to 2013); but, since 2014, their correlational coefficients have largely tanked.

Meanwhile, it has been the norm for wide receivers to report a coefficient of 0.50 or higher most years. And last season, their r=0.589 coefficient smashed the rest of the field.

Additionally, correlational coefficients for all position groups (and all players) have been in cumulative decline since 2010. This means we’re getting worse at identifying elite fantasy players than in the past (even with all the stats-heads out there like me trying to work the system).

Among the four fantasy positions, wide receiver reports the lowest overall decline in correlational strength and the highest cumulative coefficient since 2010.

Re-Thinking Early-Round Draft Philosophy: The “New” Running Back

Philosophically, fantasy drafters used to envision running back as the most stable fantasy position due to the predictability of bell cow backs’ rushing volumes. But, as we explored in Part 2 of this series on running backs, the new RB1 archetype isn’t based on rushing volume anymore; it’s based on receiving acumen. Now, wide receiver should be viewed as the “new” running back in our collective draft philosophy: The most stable, predictable and anti-fragile fantasy position to bank on.

If you’ll permit me to indulge a bit of my hubris (Boom – another Greek mythology reference!), let’s go back to a statement I made in Part 6:

“How difficult is it to replace WR1 production via waivers in a given season? Almost impossible.

Now, how difficult is it to replace RB1 production by contrast? Well… last season gave us a few excellent examples of that, actually. Down the stretch in 2018, Damien Williams inherited an RB1 workload when Kareem Hunt was suspended; Derrick Henry caught fire; Jaylen Samuels produced starting RB value in relief of James Conner; and C.J. Anderson aptly replaced Todd Gurley due to injury. All four of those replacement players were starting-caliber running backs on fantasy championship teams.

Can you think of comparable players who replaced fantasy WR1s last season? Sterling Shepard never quite put it together when Odell Beckham Jr. went down. Tyler Boyd valiantly produced WR2 numbers but never touched A.J. Green’s expected level of production. Tyler Lockett performed excellently in Doug Baldwin’s absence but was only a borderline WR2/WR3.

[…] Players like DeAndre HopkinsDavante Adams and Julio Jones offer profound value, not just because they’re incredibly productive, but even more so due to their irreplaceability.”

My point here isn’t to diminish the value of top-tier running backs. I still fervently believe that if you can draft a top-end RB1 in Round 1, you should probably do so. Instead, I’m highlighting wide receivers’ value due to their consistency and irreplaceability.

An Appeal For Non-Zero-RB Adherents

In the early rounds of any fantasy draft, you shouldn’t be taking big risks. You need a core of reliable, heavy-hitting fantasy players early-on. In the past, fantasy drafters looked to the running back position to deliver this kind of early-round consistency at a position that was relatively scarce.

That kind of thinking may hold true with the first four to five picks of Round 1. But, we also can’t ignore wide receivers’ stability as part of that discussion.

In 2017, David Johnson missed nearly the entire season with a dislocated wrist. In 2018, Le’Veon Bell didn’t even play due to his contract holdout. Both of those players were drafted in the top-five of most fantasy drafts. And now, fast-forward to 2019, and Melvin Gordon is embroiled in a contract dispute of his own.

Those examples are just anecdotal, of course, but they help illustrate my point: Even if you’re not a Zero-RB adherent (I wouldn’t count myself as a Zero-RB guy, for whatever it’s worth), you need to re-frame your drafting philosophy to include wide receivers with your early-round selections.

Image Credit: Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Michael Thomas.

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