Statistics | Strategy
In the last few years, wide receivers have become the new running backs of fantasy football as NFL offenses continue swinging toward an aerially favored game ... and more and more squads move away from workhorse running backs.
Drafters assume the extra point that comes with every catch in point-per-reception leagues 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 as it is in standard scoring?
Do essentially full-time running backs, now seemingly a rare commodity, become more valuable, especially if they catch passes? Or should you disregard RBs and grab wideouts sooner in leagues with these setups?
The receiver-friendly fantasy draft trend has endured for the last few years in small doses. In the past three 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.
NFL franchises seem securer in frequently involving more than one running back to preserve the health of their pieces and expand the types of plays they can run. Still, few receivers surpass 100 catches in a season, and even those that come close are becoming rarer.
Table 1: Wide receivers that reached 80 receptions, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, 2007-2010
Only Andre Johnson, Roddy White and Stevie Johnson accomplished all three of the noted feats in 2010. The continued decrease of 80-catchers 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.
What if you're just grasping for receptions? Can you still find catch sources after the big names leave the board?
Table 2: Number of wide receivers that reached various reception levels, 2007-2010
It appears this bell curve is getting fatter in the middle tier. With the rise of DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson and Mike Wallace, we're seeing more essentially all-or-nothing haulers as teams' No. 1 or 1A targets, diminishing the lot of elite receptionists.
But despite last season's decline of top-end reception loggers, consider how the slingers had their say. There were five 4,000-yard passers in 2010, half of the 2009 group:
But Aaron Rodgers fell just short of the mark. Matt Ryan is on the verge, too, with rookie Julio Jones on the fast track to making an impact. Though a Cincy QB might not even crack 3,000 yards, Roethlisberger, Romo and Flacco should move back toward four grand in 2011, meaning names like Mike Wallace, Miles Austin and Anquan Boldin should jump back into producing elite or near-elite numbers. As shaky as he has been, Donovan McNabb can help Percy Harvin do the same with No. 4 finally done ... we think.
While wideout production is bound to step up, can we say the same about the general condition of the running back position?
Duos or committees
That's 23 out of 32 teams - 71.9 percent of the NFL - with at least a hint of shared backfield work. Committee approaches are spreading the wealth more like a passing game does, so textbook feature backs are dwindling.
Oh, and let's not forget that there are some names on this list that are considered the automatic top-six or -seven draftees. Plus, we have Chris Johnson's holdout and Maurice Jones-Drew's lingering knee issues.
Most of the featured backs will be selected within the first six or seven picks of drafts, so from there, a lot of it is picking poisons. Plucking elite wideouts after the top five or six are gone becomes a frequent strategy, especially since running backs with elite reception totals fly off the board quickly, and the risk evens out with the remaining backs.
Though running backs have both rushing and receiving means for production, their bonus in receptions isn't as well-versed:
Table 3: Running back reception levels, 2007-2010
You won't find much stability in the middle tiers of pass-catching RBs. The growing frequency of plays involving passing-down specialists and change-up backs is dragging more catches toward the middle of the RB pack.
Still, this means that there are several commodities that can fill PPR flex gaps among carriers. The ability to catch passes makes these commodities more valuable, especially if any other uncertainty about their stock allows them to fall in PPR drafts.
In PPR leagues, the importance of receiver and tight end targets sees a boost. This is where we see augmented value for slot receivers and other not-so-explosive players that stand out in these formats:
Table 4: WR target leaders, Wks 1-17, 2010
Pegging how frequently a receiving option will be sought out - based on past tendencies and informed estimations of future involvement - is a solid tiebreaker in deciding between two different PPR commodities, during a draft or during a free-agent pickup period.
As we've seen, the more explosive wideouts don't necessarily have to be the most targeted to finish among fantasy football's best - especially in standard scoring - but it usually helps more often to be a more frequent earner of QB attention.
For complete statistical and target rankings, check out our Statistics Analyzer after a free registration.
Table 5: Top 10 running backs' output in combinational PPR leagues, 2010
AD, CJ2K and Rice are the only ones that were consistent first-round picks in PPRs. Charles was a second-rounder. McCoy and Forte? Grabbed somewhere between Rounds 3 and 4, usually. Foster, DMC and Bradshaw were chiefly middle-rounds steals, with Hillis coming off many waiver wires.
Table 6: Top 10 wide receivers' output in combinational PPR leagues, 2010
Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald (who ranks 11th on this list) and Randy Moss - oof - were the most commonly selected wideouts in the PPR top 12. Wayne, Calvin Johnson, Miles Austin (14th) and Brandon Marshall (not in top 25) were also frequent selections near first-round turns. White and Jennings snuck into the second round.
Despite the giant Moss whiff, the 2010 "bankable" wideouts still performed around what was expected of them last year, even with the waiver wire and middle- and late-round stabs at Lloyd, Bowe, Wallace and Johnson. Wide receiver importance in PPRs held firm.
A running back scored the most PPR fantasy points among these two positions for the second straight season, but otherwise, the divergence between the two positions actually decreased.
Five of the 12 wideouts in the top 10 averaged fewer than five catches per game, but this isn't something you should bank on again. Lloyd has a huge downfall factor in a new offense. Bowe likely won't hit 15 touchdowns again. Wallace is dangerous, but 21.0 yards per catch? That's hard to repeat, meaning he might not be a top-10 PPR option, or even top 20. But Megatron and Jennings are more proven performers that are better counted on to stick in the top 10 or 15. Oh, and Fitzgerald has a competent QB, so he's likely to enter the top 10, if not the top five.
Table 7: Top 10 running backs' output in combinational PPR 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.
Table 8: Top 10 wide receivers' point output in combinational PPR 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 the top four running backs were the top four scorers in PPR combined among these two positions. 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 9: Top 10 running backs' point output in combinational PPR 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 10: Top 10 wide receivers' point output in combinational PPR 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. Antonio 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 11: Top 10 running backs' point output in combinational PPR leagues, 2007
Notice the top two names on this list. Their dynamic PPR presence kept them far above the rest.
Table 12: Top 10 wide receivers' point output in combinational PPR leagues, 2007
Edwards and Welker were the biggest surprises among a typical top grouping for '07. Randy 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.
Statistics | Strategy
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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