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You Must Choose a Side in the WR1 Debate: Redraft Strategy for the Passing Revolution, Part 6

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 Parts 2-4, I covered the running back position in detail. Then, in Part 5, I addressed the tight end position. In each of my preceding articles, I’ve emphasized the importance of targeting elite pass-catching RB1s and elite tight ends early in the draft. But, if we prioritize RB and TE, how does that affect wide receiver strategy, exactly? In this article and in Part 7, I’ll break down historical trends to examine how and when we should be addressing the wide receiver position in 2019 fantasy redrafts.

Be sure to check out this series’ previous installments:

Analyzing Historical Trends for the WR Position

As we’ve done with each of the other skill positions, let’s open our discussion on wide receivers by reviewing target and PPR trends over time. In this case, we’ll be evaluating wide receivers since 2002.

Population Size

On the surface, the data for wide receivers looks rather bleak. Much like tight ends, wide receivers’ fantasy population has increased sizably (+23.1% since 2002). However, unlike tight ends, receivers have not kept up in terms of targets per player. The combination of these two factors suggests that modern offenses are distributing targets more broadly among their wide receiver corps. In principle, this deflates the potential target share for each team’s WR1, because targets are not as concentrated as they used to be. We’ll explore this further a bit later.

Targets per Player

Admittedly, wide receiver targets are only down 2.0% since 2002 — and the last two seasons have been down years compared to 2012-2016. Moreover, there’s little evidence from the data above that there has been any systematic increase — or decrease — in wide receiver targets over time. However, targets per player has decreased tenfold (-20.4%) compared to the 2.0% decline in total targets. This means that the much larger population of wide receivers is dragging receiver averages down substantially.

PPR Points per Player

This downward trend is echoed in wide receivers’ 11.8% drop in PPR scoring per player despite their 8.6% increase in total PPR points scored. To be fair, receivers suffered a total collapse statistically in 2017, and last year reported a soft rebound to “normal” levels. Still, this represents yet another downward trend in wide receivers’ per-player efficiency.

WR1 Scarcity and Replaceability:

On the one hand, these global trends suggest that players’ average target share and PPR share is decreasing as quarterbacks spread the ball around to more players. On the other hand, these trends also signal that individual receivers with high target shares are especially valuable. Not only that, but they are also incredibly scarce.

Let’s think about this anecdotally for a second: 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.

The point is this: Elite WR1s are more valuable now than they’ve ever been due to the scarcity of high-target share performers. 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.

Wide Receiver Fantasy Tiers

Now that we’ve established a baseline for the wide receiver position as a whole, let’s examine some internal trends within the position. The data below is broken up by fantasy tier: WR1 represents the top-12 PPR receivers in the given season, WR2 represents fantasy players 13 to 24, and so on. There’s a lot of noise in the data below, but I’ll do my best to tease out the biggest takeaways from this dataset:

Targets

Wide receiver targets data reveals significant volatility for each fantasy tier from season to season. There’s some evidence that wide receiver targets experienced a mini-renaissance from 2012 to 2015, but this target increase was neither consistent nor systematic for any of the wide receiver sub-tiers. Moreover, the relative decline from 2016 to 2018 should probably be seen as regression to the mean (although it may have dipped into correction territory).

PPR Points

Due to the volatility of this data, you should take the relative collapse in targets and PPR points in 2017 with a grain of salt. In fact, it may even be wise to bet on a rebound for WR2 and WR3 in 2019. Sure, these two fantasy tiers report substantial declines in target share and PPR share since 2008, but both tiers more-or-less stabilized from 2009 onwards. The 2017 and 2018 seasons may represent the fantasy floor for these groups, which could suggest improvement in 2019 rather than a prolonged decline. If this kind of regression occurs, then players like Sammy Watkins (ADP: 62), Jarvis Landry (ADP: 64) and Will Fuller (ADP: 79) may currently be under-drafted.

WR1 PPR Points vs. Targets

However, there’s also an alternative argument that WR1 is as strong as ever. The WR1 tier reports a 5.7% increase in PPR points since 2002 despite a 4.7% decline in targets. As I mentioned previously, neither of these statistics reflects a systematic trend, but the combination of these results confirms that WR1s are substantially more efficient than they used to be.

Moreover, WR1 is the only fantasy tier to report an increase in PPR points since 2002. All other fantasy tiers report declines of at least 2.8% over that span. Diving a little deeper into the data, WR1 actually separated itself from other fantasy tiers at a historic level in 2018.

Last season, WR1 boasted a 5.1% edge over WR2 in target share and 6.5% edge over WR3. Both difference percentages represent all-time highs since 2002. WR1 also out-scored WR2 in PPR points by 5.9% and out-scored WR3 by 8.5%. Both of those differences were the highest since 2003.

So, if there is one big takeaway from this confusing dataset, it is this: You must choose a side in the WR1 debate. Either you ally yourself with the side of statistical regression and bank on a WR2/WR3 resurgence, or you ride the wave of WR1’s recent separation from the pack by drafting WR early and often in 2019.

What to Expect in Part 7

In this series’ next installment, I’ll continue my examination of the wide receiver position. The data presented in this article is rife with variability compared to our analysis on running backs or tight ends. In Part 7, I’ll present this data in a very different way, and I’ll bring order out of this madness.

Image Credit: Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sports. Pictured: DeAndre Hopkins.

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