Backs, Receivers and Year-to-Year Volatility

Who is the most consistent receiver in football? Would you believe it's Roddy White?

On Monday, I wrote about the myth of wide receiver depth – the fact that everyone seems to think there are more viable wide receivers in fantasy football than running backs, even though the opposite is true. Towards the end of the piece, I mentioned that the higher week-to-week volatility of wide receivers actually made the top guys, like Calvin Johnson more valuable, since they aren’t prone to the week-killing dud performances that so many other receivers experience.

One element I did not cover in that piece, but which was brought up in the comment section, was year-to-year volatility. Commenter David Riehn proposed that there is more turnover among wide receivers from year to year than there is with running backs. Therefore, he was more hesitant to draft top wide receivers, because it’s more difficult to identify who those top guys are going to be if the top tier is changing every year.

This comment made me think, and then it made me do some research. I came away with two takes: first, if WR really is more volatile year-to-year, wouldn’t that make someone like Calvin Johnson, who is clearly the top receiver (or one of them) even more valuable, since he’s a constant you can count on amid high variance at the position? And second, is it even true that receiver is more volatile year-to-year than running back? If you read the first article, you know we don’t just go by “the book” at NumberFire. I’d already proved that running back with deeper than wide receiver; now I wanted to see if it was really more stable.

Results May Vary

For this little thought exercise, I wanted to see if there really was consistency at the top. So I looked at the 15 best running backs and the 15 best wide receivers in fantasy football for each season since 2003. Then, I charted how many players stayed in the top 15 for their position from year-to-year. I call these players “holdovers,” since they remained in the top 15 for consecutive seasons.

I found that running backs had almost exactly a 50 percent turnover rate. Of the top 15 running backs in 2012, seven of them were top 15 in 2011. 2011 was a little more stable, as 8 of the running backs in the top 15 had been top 15 the year before. And 2010 followed much the same pattern: 7 of the top backs had been top 15 the year prior. Overall, since 2003, there have been an average of 7.44 running holdovers every year. Just about half of the top 15 every year were guys who weren’t there the year before.

That doesn’t seem particularly stable, but compared to wideouts it is. Last year, wide receiver was actually more stable than running back, but just a little: eight of the top 15 WRs were top guys in 2011. But before that, the position was just as unpredictable as everyone says it is. There were a mere four holdovers in 2011, and just five who managed to make the list in both 2010 and 2009. Overall, there was an average of 6.22 receiver holdovers each season, or a full player less than running backs.

Check out the chart for the year to year data, or if those last two paragraphs didn’t make a whole lot of sense to you.

Holdovers by Year


What about the guys at the top?

So if running back was the more stable position year-to-year, then it should be easier to identify the running back studs, those guys who you can count on to be in the top 15 every year, right? Not so fast.

For this exercise, I only looked at the last four seasons. It doesn’t do you a whole lot of good to know how consistent Terrell Owens and Rudi Johnson were year-to-year. You want to know about guys you might actually be drafting.

There were two running backs who were top 15 guys all four years: Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice. Rice’s average draft position so far this year is 8th. You might want to keep his incredible consistency in the back of your mind when you’re thinking about taking C.J. Spiller (ADP: 6th) ahead of him.

And there were five other running backs who were top 15 three out of the four years: Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, Frank Gore, Matt Forte and Chris Johnson. Gore was the 19th-best back in fantasy in 2010, so he missed out on being included in that Peterson tier by just four spots. Chris Johnson was even closer – he finished 16th in 2011, his only year outside the top 15. He was all of .2 fantasy points away from being one of only three running backs in the top 15 each of the last four seasons. Keep that in mind next time you rag on CJ2K.

But let’s not forget about the wide receivers. We’ve already established there tends to be more turnover at the position year to year, but surely there are some studs who can be counted on every season, right? Yup, and don’t call me Shirley. Roddy White stands alone as the only wideout to finish in the top 15 at the position in each of the last four years. He’s currently the 9th wide receiver off the board, and you can get him in the late 3rd or early 4th round. I know you’re drafting for what he’ll do this year, and not what he’s done in the past, but you should know he’s about as reliable as it gets at WR. (Yes, even the mighty Calvin Johnson finished outside the top 15, once, in 2009.)

But the next tier of players – the guys who made the top 15 three out of the past four years – is where it gets interesting. In all, seven receivers meet that criteria, which means that WR might be a little more stable than you think it is. Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, Marques Colston, Wes Welker and Reggie Wayne are all in that second tier. No one in that group is particularly old, or facing a dramatic change in quarterback ability or system (although Wayne’s Colts are going to run the ball a lot more this year) so injuries are the only thing likely to derail this bunch.

So there it is: running backs as a group tend to be more stable from year to year, but there are more stud wide receivers who show up every season. It’s not a full-scale de-bunking like with the myth of wide receiver depth, but it certainly complicates the thought process a little bit. You now have a better idea of where to look for consistent yearly production.