The security of running backs in fantasy football took a Ray Lewis-sized hit last season. Wide receivers' fantasy stocks and average draft positions (ADPs) have spiked with the increasing number of backfield committees and wildcat formations sweeping through NFL playbooks.
This tremor may be felt more in the tectonic plates of point-per-reception (PPR) leagues. A common argument says the extra point in these setups that comes with every catch unquestionably increases the value of the top receivers, meaning you should build up your wideouts early in these drafts or for more money in these auctions.
Wait, if all receptions are worth a point in PPR leagues, doesn't that mean you could spend late picks or place some value bids on high-upside wideouts? We at KFFL.com thought this was an infallible strategy for many years.
Consider this our recognition of, and adaptation to, a paradigm shift in the worlds of fantasy and reality football. Oh, and while you're at it, sound the trumpets of the Four Horsemen.
As the end of the first round approaches in PPRs, there is more of a debate between whether to take a near-elite running back or an elite wideout.
This receiver-friendly fantasy trend has gone on for the last few years in small doses. In 2008, receivers' values jumped out of the shadows and mugged many of us.
Though this could only explain a part of the reason, maybe offensive coordinators have learned to better manipulate the tightened illegal contact penalty on defensive backs (the "Ty Law Rule") after the 2003 playoffs. Surely, freer-flowing passing attacks - and as a result, more receptions - stem from looser coverage.
In PPR, the biggest receptions totals rest in a very restrictive class. Few receivers top 100 catches in a season, meaning the values of those that accomplish the feat may be slightly inflated the following year.
How does this affect the spectrum of wideout production?
Table 1: Receivers who reached 80 receptions, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, 2006-08
The yardage trend isn't surprising, but the decreases in the reception and touchdown category means that frequently scoring wideouts may be turning into more prominent premium commodities. Drafting the top-rated receivers would seem like more of a priority if the "elite" number continues to decline.
This also means, though, that the waiver wire holds many options for fill-ins for your No. 3 or bench wideouts. More diversity in playcalling means more receivers continue to be valuable PPR options in late rounds or as free agents.
The rub: Though a bigger portion of the player pool is seeing an increase in production, the divergence between point-scoring tiers is top heavy.
Anyway, back to fantasy: In 2008, many of the cream of the running back crop, in terms of total points scored, didn't come from first-round selections:
Table 2: Top 10 running backs' point output in standard PPR scoring leagues, 2008
It's hard to think Williams, Forte, Turner, Jones-Drew, Slaton and Jones fell in the first round or early second round last draft season. Peterson, Tomlinson and Westbrook were likely top-five picks, on average, with Portis often being taken at the end of the first.
Table 3: Top 10 wide receivers' point output in standard PPR scoring leagues, 2008
Fitzgerald and the Texans' Johnson were the most likely first-round selections of this group, but they probably came at the end of the first stanza, on average.
The fact that many of the top-performing running backs were probably obtained after the first six picks gives the top wide receivers a better leg to stand on. Speculating on running backs performing above their draft value is easier than doing the same for wideouts.
That second notion is a classic Captain Obvious dictum, but it's so easy to forget.
What do the 2007 standings say?
Table 4: Top 10 running backs' point output in standard PPR scoring leagues, 2007
Here are the wide receivers:
Table 5: Top 10 wide receivers' point output in standard PPR scoring leagues, 2007
Fantasy football outlook
In PPR leagues, running backs are less of a sure thing for late first-round production. Their ability to contribute in the ground and air games, however, still gives them more opportunities to outperform their vertical counterparts.
Even with injuries and time splits, running backs' degree of bust potential remains much lower than wideouts if taken in the top half of the first round, meaning you should still go with a running back within the first five or six picks. Remember, running backs have more control over what they do on any of their utilizations.
Why not go all out and take them within the top six picks? Plucking a wideout within the top half of the first round cripples your ability to create a solid running back foundation. Touchdown output still favors the backfield.
Once the elite receiver class is gone, the urgency to take a No. 1 wideout decreases slightly. If you build up your running back group, you can settle for similar No. 1 wideout options within the same class.
If you draft an elite wideout in the late first round, we still recommend targeting mid-round receivers that can rattle off receptions so you can build up your backfield with consecutive picks afterward. Assess the remaining player pool before deciding to go this route.
Remember: Even if you're close to the first turn, taking a running back and a receiver with your first two selections in PPR formats presents more risk. Don't blindly grab a wideout early just because the masses tell you to.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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