Wide receivers continue to climb fantasy football draft boards, further toasting the formerly long-standing running back-running back strategy. The ascension took on full force during last year's preseason, with first- and second-round wideouts comprising the foundation of more and more squads.
Early 2010 average draft position (ADP) rankings have boasted as many as eight receivers in the top 24 picks for point-per-reception formats.
Fantasy football drafters assume the extra point that comes with every PPR catch increases the value of the top receivers and warrants building their wideout corps early.
But since every catch counts, does that mean the distribution of wideouts isn't as drastic in PPR value? Do workhorse running backs, now seemingly a rare commodity, become more valuable, especially if they catch passes? Or must you grab wideouts sooner in these setups?
The receiver-friendly fantasy draft trend has gone on for the last few years in small doses. In the past few seasons, receivers' values jumped out of the shadows and mugged many of us.
Though this could only explain a part of the reason, 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 reception totals rest in a very restrictive class. Few receivers surpass 100 catches in a season, meaning the values of those who accomplish the feat may be inflated the following year.
How does this affect the spectrum of wideout production?
Table 1: Number of wide receivers who reached 80 receptions, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, 2007-09
The decrease in the receptions category means consistent wideouts are turning into premium commodities, in both standard and our topical scoring system.
Spotlight on those wideouts that can consistently net 15 or so PPR points a week. You figure those that go with two receivers in the first four PPR rounds have a solid shot at using up this group, in theory. Notice how few receivers actually accomplish all three feats.
Stud receivers are becoming more vital to own in PPRs:
Table 2: Number of wide receivers who caught a pass and total wide receiver catches, 2007-09
Now, let's break it down:
Since the production is thinning out to more mid-level sources, you'll need to find more consistency - in other words, grabbing one or two stud wideouts early. Can you still find catch sources after the big names leave the board, though?
Table 3: Number of wide receivers who reached various reception levels, 2007-09
The 4,000-yard passer is becoming more common, generally meaning more receivers are involved. The expanded quarterback responsibilities of Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons), Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens) and others in formerly run-first or inept offenses have opened or might open things up for more wideouts to earn more points.
Receivers of Donovan McNabb (Washington Redskins), Chad Henne (Miami Dolphins), Mark Sanchez (New York Jets) and Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders) are prime examples of potential gainers in the same vein for 2010 and could produce decent lotto ticket options.
The waiver wire will hold many fill-in and rental options for your No. 3 or bench wideouts, but these leftovers won't be as consistent. There's still a wide wideout crevasse between stable scorers and the finger-crossing tiers.
Committees in session
The decline of former stud pass catchers Brian Westbrook (free agent) and LaDainian Tomlinson (New York Jets) means there's a heavy drop-off for production in PPR running backs, too. After - in any order - Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans), Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings), Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens), Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville Jaguars), and the riskier Frank Gore (San Francisco 49ers) and Steven Jackson (St. Louis Rams), non-first-round PPR tailbacks are looking quite similar.
Committee approaches are spreading the wealth more like a passing game does, so textbook featured backs are dwindling. Plucking elite wideouts after the top five or six are gone becomes a frequent strategy, especially since running backs with an elite reception total fly off the board quickly and the risk evens out with the remaining backs.
Though running backs have more outlets for production than wideouts, their bonus in receptions naturally drops off much faster into mediocrity.
Table 4: Number of running backs who reached various reception levels, 2006-09
Not too many elite options come from this position, but there are certainly serviceable options that can still be had later on. The ability to catch passes makes these commodities more valuable, especially if any other uncertainty about them allows them to fall in PPR drafts.
The running back turnover has become more dynamic than that of the wideouts in the statistical leaderboards for the last three years of positional data in PPR scoring. These can't possibly predict the exact trends of this year, but the data indicates that wideouts are becoming more important to lock up early.
Table 5: Top 10 running backs' output in combinational PPR scoring leagues, 2009
Every Coach's Dream? A 2,000-yard rusher, so rare that it threw off the distribution. His elite performance in general wasn't a complete surprise, though, since he was a first-rounder.
AD and MJD? Normal. Gore? Whew, he stayed healthy. Rice, Williams and Jones? Great return on draft slot.
Table 6: Top 10 wide receivers' point output in standard PPR scoring leagues, 2009
Austin, Smith and Rice were the leapers here. Marshall fell in many drafts due to a possible suspension. The others? Typical Round 1 and 2 PPR fare.
Notice that the top four running backs were the top four scorers in PPR among these two positions combined. The wide receivers make up the middle portion of the combined rankings.
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 7: Top 10 running backs' point output in combinational PPR scoring leagues, 2008
Williams, Forte, Turner, Jones-Drew, Slaton and Jones didn't typically fall in the first round or early second round two draft seasons ago. Peterson, Tomlinson and Westbrook were likely top-five picks, on average, with Portis often being taken at the end of the first.
Table 8: 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. Bryant was the real out-of-nowhere performer here.
These rankings were a little more even in terms of fantasy points - note how Tomlinson and Westbrook showed signs of slowing down.
Table 9: Top 10 running backs' point output in combinational PPR scoring leagues, 2007
Notice the top two names on this list. Their dynamic PPR presence kept them far above the rest.
Table 10: Top 10 wide receivers' point output in standard PPR scoring leagues, 2007
Edwards and Welker were the biggest surprises among a typical top grouping for '07. Moss' freakishly, unrepeatable standout year skews the receiver picture, and the deviation in wideouts below him is less prominent than in 2008.
The seemingly final years in the prime of both Tomlinson and Westbrook - along with Moss' historic season - didn't change the fact that the top wideouts dwarfed the top backs for the most part.
That last point is a classic Captain Obvious dictum, but it's so easy to forget.
Fantasy football outlook
Expect wideouts to start falling in the second half of the first round of PPRs before flying off the board until the end of the third stanza. It'll probably slow down a bit after that.
Taking wide receivers with the first two picks of your serpentine draft still holds more risk than acquiring a stud at running back and wideout, or taking two running backs if you have a short turn between Rounds 2 and 3.
If you select a wideout with your first two picks, you'll set yourself up to rely on part-time carriers, in turn losing out on backfield utilizations. Even with injuries and time splits, running backs' degree of non-injury bust potential remains much lower than that of wideouts if taken in the top half of the first round, meaning you should go with a running back within the first half of the opening round.
Running backs have more control over what they do on any of their utilizations, and - duh - they have at least two means of gaining yardage and touchdowns.
Speculating on running backs performing above their draft value is easier than doing the same for wideouts, but you'll probably have to acquire mid-level carriers more quickly than wideouts. Rookie running backs also generally sport better speculation than rookie wideouts; the transition into NFL utility for the latter usually takes longer.
Quarterbacks and tight ends possess deep classes. It remains a better bet to lock up elite, proven options at running back and wideout, both in PPR and standard scoring setups, in the first four or five rounds. When deciding between a back and a wideout, note the remaining scarcity of the position.
Point-per-reception leagues boost the value of the Hines Ward and Donald Driver types more so than the elite wideouts. Those two are examples of iffy commodities that are a bit more stable in these formats. Gauge a wideout's value differential between PPR and non-PPR before considering a middle-round reach.
Unfortunately, position chiefly determines your strategy in snake drafts. In PPR auctions, receptions still come at a premium, but you can at least find an easier time adapting your strategy on the fly with fewer restrictions.
Beware: Many people might play a similar strategy in waiting on their No. 3 or flex back or wideout. Adapt to your PPR league lineup requirements and the flow of your draft, whatever type it might be. If wideouts are falling, you might want to secure running back talent first, and vice versa.
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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