NFL

You Still Can't Trust Waiver-Wire Running Backs in Fantasy Football

The 2016 season had its share of hits and misses on the waiver-wire. What do the numbers have to say?

I'm not sure where to go from here.

That happens to me frequently when working on updated versions of studies I've done in the past, mainly because I try to learn from studies I do. If I didn't, why bother?

After gathering data, analyzing it, and offering conclusions, it can tend to be hard to research the same thing with a blank-slate mentality.

But at the same time, I'm a big proponent in admitting that I don't know everything. Far from it. I'm always willing to adapt, especially with fantasy football strategy because, at the end of the day, I don't get anything for "I told you so" in my leagues.

I just want to win, and I want to help you win.

That's why, last offseason, I tried to figure out how waiver-wire running backs performed after being added. I'm not going to sum up my findings yet. I've actually forgotten the details. I just want to see how waiver-wire backs performed in 2016 and then figure out what it all means.

From as blank a slate as possible.

The Premise

The research question is really all that matters, and I'm going to get right to it. Each season, numerous waiver-wire transactions are completed in fantasy football leagues. Some prove fruitful, and others amount to nothing.

What actually happens when waiver-wire running backs are added?

That's really what we're focusing in on here. Players aren't added from waivers for no reason. Whether it's a promising game, increased usage, an injury to a starter -- whatever -- something led to a waiver-wire transaction.

Of course, not every waiver-wire pickup is equal. In 2016, Fozzy Whittaker had ostensible value early in the season because Jonathan Stewart got hurt, but Tevin Coleman had ostensible value because of his workload in relation to Devonta Freeman.

Bilal Powell had ostensible value because he was cutting into Matt Forte's workload throughout the season. Bilal Powell, later in the season, had ostensible value because Matt Forte got hurt.

Was Powell a slam-dunk waiver-wire addition? If you had him from Week 1 through Week 9, you probably didn't think so, as he didn't finish better than RB20 in weekly PPR performance in a single game in that stretch.

If you had him for Weeks 13 and 14 when he finished as the RB2 and RB5, respectively, you're probably remembering him as a league-winner. Both are true, but separating the two pickup periods matters a bit, doesn't it?

Apparently, I've been a lifelong Powell truther and had him on most of my teams this year but dropped him for a more realistic producer midway through the season. I missed out on picking him back up for Week 14. You don't care about that, and I'm not asking you to, but I am asking you -- for your own sake -- to remember Powell as a speculative add who didn't break through as well as the breakout back during fantasy playoffs.

That's the gist of what we're examining here.

The Approach

I've tallied weekly waiver-wire addition data from FleaFlicker.com from the 2016 season to see when running backs were getting added at a high rate. Then, I examined how those players fared in the two weeks prior to being added and the four weeks after being added (in terms of weekly PPR finishes at the position).

We're going to hone in on the top 30 single-week adds (in terms of volume) to try to eradicate speculative or low-volume adds, as these players may not actually have had a clear window to be added or may have been drafted and stashed, resulting in low numbers of actual additions.

We're also looking at additions by Week 14 or earlier so that we have at least three games (Week 14, 15, and 16) to let these waiver-wire backs show us what they could do.

By looking at the 30 highest-volume adds, we're trying to shine the spotlight on some of the most "obvious" additions of the year, roughly two per week. As you all know, there are hardly two great running back adds in a given week. We can narrow it down later (and we will).

The Results

Here's the snapshot of the top 30 single-week adds of the 2016 season at running back, according to FleaFlicker.

The image is color-coded, with green cells indicating a finish of RB12 or better for the week, yellow for RB13 to RB24, white for RB25 to RB36, red for RB37 or worse, and gray for no result.

"Week -1" refers to 1 week before the addition (so, the game leading to or immediately prior to the influx in additions), and "Week 1" refers to the first week after the addition.

I've also included each player's full-season PPR ranks (total points and per-game rates) and their ranks if we look at things just after the week in which they were added.

2016 PPR RB Ranks After Additions
Looking just at the six-week period in question, there is a good bit of yellow and green, and the red really doesn't take over until the bottom part of the list. Part of that is because Jacquizz Rodgers and C.J. Prosise were short-lived adds, but still, that does not look like a poor result collectively.

Just know that, of the 120 possible games in the four-week span after additions were made, 94 finished with some sort of result (i.e. a non-injury, non-bye, non-benched outcome).

Of those 94 games, 44 yielded an RB24-or-better result. That's a 46.8% chance to get a weekly RB2 (or better) provided that the given player actually plays.

Again, that's not bad in the grand scheme of things, but there's a 36.7% hit rate of RB24-or-better finishes if you look at all 120 possible outcomes for these 30 backs in the four weeks after additions.

That makes me more skeptical -- think about what it takes to get the most sought-after options on your team.

After the Jonathan Stewart injury, Whittaker commanded, likely, a top waiver claim. That shuffles you to the bottom of the waiver priority list, and for what? Two usable weeks. Is that a win? I reckon that depends on your expectations.

But maybe you didn't fall into the Fozzy Whittaker "trap." Perhaps, instead, you did try to take advantage of early-season situations and spent a Week 3 waiver claim on Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Tevin Coleman, or Dwayne Washington. All had the potential to step into larger roles, or in Coleman's case, be a committee back on a stellar offense.

If you did take a chance on one of those guys, were you then able to snare Jordan Howard, the eventual RB10 for the full season and RB7 from Week 4 onward, when he became a prime waiver-wire candidate in Week 4 or 5? It's possible but doubtful, given how traditional waiver wires work. (That's all the more reason to beg your commissioner to switch to free-agent acquisition budget (FAAB), by the way.)

One season of data is nice, but for a study like this one, we really need to dig back into fantasy football history, which is what I did last offseason, examining waiver-wire performance from 2010 to 2015.

Here's how the list looked in 2015, for reference.

2015 PPR RB Waiver Wire

Overall, the colors and ranks probably say to you what you want them to say to you.

If you're a proponent of ZeroRB, you're likely seeing this as a net win, as you're able to find some top-24 performances from the waiver wire after investing essentially nothing into the position during the draft. If you're more skeptical and prefer investing heavily into the position during the draft, then you're probably letting the gray and red dominate your vision.

So let's strip that away, remove the names, and look at the pre- and post-pickup period for these high-volume waiver-wire additions.

Here is how the 30 most-added running backs have performed in the short period before and after pickup from 2010 through 2016, if we exclude games where they accrued no fantasy points for whatever reason.

Weekly PPR RB Waiver-Wire Ranks 2010-2016

To be clear, this shows us the weekly rank of the running backs in the sample during a particular week. For example, 200 of the 210 backs in the sample played the week before being added (Week -1), and 36.0% of them were top-12 performers in that given week, and 21.1% of those who played the week after being added were top-12 running backs by PPR scoring.

As we can see, backs tend to fare well (a top-36 finish if not a top-12 finish) prior to being added. It only makes sense. We don't want to add the RB54 for a week very often. But low-end output (RB37 or worse) is what tends to happen 43.2% of the time the week after additions.

That does, of course, include a 44.7% chance to notch a top-24 running back week after adding that given player.

In all, there was a 56.8% chance that a particular pickup gave you an immediate RB36-or-better performance in this seven-year span. That's not bad for those espousing the ZeroRB philosophy.

If we include weeks that yielded zeroes in the fantasy points column (byes, injuries, benchings, what-have-yous) and cut out the RB3 weeks (RB25 to RB36) in attempt to separate the "good" from the "bad", here is how they look.

Weekly PPR RB Ranks Including Byes 2010-2016
Again, this is going to matter on your perception of what you actually expect from a waiver-wire add, but I really don't think we should overlook what it takes to land a top-flight (in terms of volume) waiver-wire addition, unless you play in a very casual league.

In all, there's been about a 40% chance that your pickup nets you an RB24 performance or better in that first week, after odds above 50% leading up to the influx in additions (in Weeks -2 and -1).

That's not terrible, but it'd certainly be preferable if we could snare those guys two weeks earlier. That's an integral part of this, too. We simply don't (and can't) always react quickly enough, and that'll never change unless we can anticipate injuries and breakout performances before they happen on the field.

That solid hit rate is contrasted by a 48.6% chance to get a return that isn't even flex-worthy (RB37 or worse) in 12-team leagues after picking up a player, who -- more likely than not -- just put forth a top-24 performance the week before.

The odds continue to plummet after that, and our waiver claims tend to be fairly futile by even the second week, unless you're comforted by a 34.3% chance at a top-24 week.

But it's a fair thing to wonder whether or not the lower-end additions -- the "if I can't get this guy, I'll take that guy because I need a running back" tier -- is bogging things down.

Let's look only at the top-10, single-week additions of the past seven seasons. Again, this omits missed games (byes and injuries and whatever else) so that we can try to figure out if the waiver-wire backs actually perform when on the field.

Top-10-Only Waiver-Wire Adds PPR RB 2010-2016

This looks less bad, as the Week 1 "bust rate" of finishing RB37 or worse is 36.4% compared to 43.2% for the top 30 backs each season, and there is a 47.0% chance of an RB24-or-better outing. This is consistent with what we'd expect: the "must-have" additions tend to eliminate the guess work and are almost assuredly stepping into a bigger role at least for one week.

Plus, they remain relevant for longer, provided that they actually see snaps in a given game. The Week 2 hit rate for an RB1 performance (32.7%) is quite enticing.

The simplified version of all of this, which includes missed games as undesirable outcomes, is a little less promising for the top-10 adds each year.

Top-10-Only Waiver-Wire PPR Backs Including Byes

The "good" weeks slightly outweigh the "bad" weeks after the pickups occur, but it is still more likely than not that these pickups yield undesirable results by the third week.

Is that a net win in your eyes? It's hard to complain about a 45% chance to get a startable running back for two weeks just for a waiver claim (especially after penalizing for missed weeks), but keep in mind that these are the players with the highest demand each season.

How often do you obtain the top running back pickup of the week each season?

Takeaways

There will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to waiver wires in fantasy football leagues, given how each league differs from the next.

Perhaps guys such as Jay Ajayi linger on the wire longer in your league than in others. Maybe your league-mates hoard running backs and receivers rather than tight ends and quarterbacks, making it even harder to compete for the Jordan Howards and Bilal Powells of the fantasy football world.

But even if you cling to your silver bullet and wait for the right time to pounce with your number-one waiver claim on a back with a clear path to opportunity, the past seven years suggest that you're about as likely to invest in a bust as you are to get a top-24 performer in the short term.

And yes, a key to of all of this is being savvy and avoiding the trap pickups (was Fozzy Whittaker really ever worth a top waiver claim or did we just want him to be?) while pouncing on the Ajayi breakouts starting around Week 7 when the offensive line got healthy (but committee concerns still remained).

Overall, I think we should let these results serve as a reminder not to feel infallible when making waiver claims or omitting the running back position in the draft because of a perceived ability to find highly-successful waiver-wire options during the season -- no matter how confident you are in your ability to predict what players and coaches will do.