Fantasy Football: Leveraging Waiver-Wire Wide Receivers to Win Your League

Finding a productive receiver from the waiver wire can be difficult, but we can use that to make better decisions.
               A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
                    It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, 
                    striking from a hidden base, have won their first 
                    victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

And wide receivers were not first-round fantasy football picks. You took your running backs and you liked it. That's the way it used to be.

Of course, there were some stud wideouts who entered the first-round conversation, but it's still a pretty recent movement to build teams actively around wide receivers instead of around running backs.

Forgoing any particular position on your fantasy football team means that you'll need to rely on late-round picks or waiver-wire options to fill the voids. With quarterbacks, tight ends, kickers, and defense, we've pretty much all agreed that you can find those options in the dying embers of your fantasy draft or on the waiver wire during the season. After all, most leagues require just one of each position, and the supply outweighs the demand.

With running backs and receivers, that's not the case. So. If your wide receivers are bad or you load up on running backs and grab a quarterback and/or tight end early, you'll need to rely on some busted wide receivers you buy from some Jawas.

Do those waiver-wire wideouts tend to end up more like R2-D2 or R5-D4? (That's probably a bad example because R5-D4 purposefully malfunctioned so that Luke Skywalker and his uncle Owen could buy R2-D2 instead, but just go with it.)

Let's dive in.

The (Death Star) Plans

Last week, I dug into how waiver-wire running backs performed before and after being added to fantasy teams and compared them to early-round fantasy draft picks -- and mid-round picks as well.

One of the problems of fantasy football is that we're not always honest with ourselves. We can easily overestimate our decision-making ability (we've all reached for players in the draft before), and we can also tend to remember things better than they actually occurred (we think finding players on the waiver wire or exploiting a matchup is a little easier than it really is).

So, I've gathered data from to see which receivers were added at the highest rate during the 2017 season. That is to say that I found the biggest, one-week influxes of additions for a player. From there, I examined how those players did after being added to fantasy rosters.

There's more to it, but that's the basic premise.

As I did with running backs, I'm looking at just the top 30 single-week adds because I don't want to taint the data with speculation adds who may not play for a few weeks, players who were added in small bits over a few weeks, or players who were already on a high number of lineups and just got some adds after their roles were more solidified.

What did I find?

I've Got a Bad Feeling About This

Take a look at the top 30 single-week adds in 2017. In the table, the "Week -1" column shows how a player fared one week before the addition influx occurred. "Week 1" indicates the week after pickup, or the first week you could play that recently-added player on your team.

Green cells indicate a top-12 rank in PPR scoring that week. Yellow is for WR13 through WR24. Red is worse than WR36. The list is sorted by most single-week additions to fewest.

Weekly WR Ranks

Focus on that Week -1 column. So much green. So much. It looks like Takodana. All but one wideout was a top-25 performer before seeing a boost in additions (Roger Lewis in Week 6). Lewis was essentially the New York Giants' only healthy wide receiver at that point, so his addition made sense.

Now shift over either one column ("Week 1") or to the far right column ("4-Week Avg"). They're about equally bad.

Just six wideouts averaged top-24 performances after being added, and four total instances came from two receivers (Robby Anderson, who made the list entering Week 9 and Week 10 and Robert Woods in Week 10 and 11).

Will Fuller also made the top-30 twice, but those later to react (picking him up after a WR9 performance in Week 5) lost a top-flight outing.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was the other, and he provided value after being added, but he's near the bottom of this list, which, again, is sorted by volume of additions.

That should matter to us when we're trying to be genuine about our abilities to pick up usable assets. We don't always pick the right ones.

On top of that, we're chasing big performances from these receivers, and they almost always fail after their breakout games -- sometimes as quickly as the next week. Out of 96 total games played, these receivers combined for just 15 top-12 weeks after being added. That's 15.6%. By comparison, 54 of those weeks were outside the top 36 at the position (56.3%), and 44 of these weeks resulted in WR50 (or worse) performances. That's 45.8%.

Now, you may be thinking that it's obvious that a waiver-wire receiver isn't going to play like a first-round fantasy asset. That's smart. However, when you're more likely than not to get a WR37-or-worse performance from a receiver off the wire (again: 56.3% in 2017), well, that's something you should know.

The waiver-wire struggle wasn't just something that happened last year, either. Here's the data for the top-30 adds from 2010 through 2017 (so 240 total wide receivers in the sample).

Weekly WR Ranks 2
So the 2017 trend definitely holds up over the larger sample.

What's really happening here is that 65.5% of these top waiver claims produce top-12 weeks, and an additional 20% are top-24 wideouts. Only then do we actually add them to our lineups. Then they just fall off the map, failing to hit a flex-worthy week more than 50% of the time.

Let's look at this information through another lens, via PPR points scored rather than weekly rank.

Over the past five seasons, the average WR12 in a week has scored roughly 19.5 PPR points, the WR24 has scored around 14.5 PPR points, and the WR36 has been around 11.0. We're going to use those as our benchmarks for performance from here on out.

I apologize if swapping from weekly ranks to points is confusing, but at least we aren't poorly explaining a tax-based trade blockade that's actually a secret militaristic plot because why would you want a clear MacGuffin to start off a three-film series that's meant for children?

So, anyway, here's how the average waiver-wire receiver has fared (slightly before and) after they were added to our squads.

This sample includes the 150 wideouts who make up the top 30 single-week adds from 2013 through 2017. The sample of games will get thinner as we trend toward Week 15 in the chart because only receivers added in Week 2 will have 15 weeks of post-addition production to examine.

WR Area Chart
That's no moon. That drop-off is massive.

This indicates that, similar to what we already saw with the weekly rankings, we're almost always adding waiver-wire receivers after big games.

These receivers look like awesome, promising additions to the franchise. Kinda like Darth Maul.

But by the time we add them and start them, their productivity plummets because their workloads aren't as steady or guaranteed as the receivers we need to draft to acquire. We, as fantasy managers, just throw our waiver capital down the tubes. It's over before it really ever starts. (Kinda like Darth Maul.)

It's pretty clear by now that waiver-wire wide receivers aren't assets on which we should rely. Put another way: we can't load up on running backs, quarterbacks, and tight ends and expect to see consistent results from our cheap receivers.

It's not that we can't or shouldn't try to find viable options from the waiver wire if we need a waiver-wire replacement. It's just that hitting the lottery with a waiver-wire receiver is highly unlikely. Now the question is how they stack up against their drafted counterparts. Maybe all receivers are just flukey over bigger samples, anyway.

Rebel Scum

Comparing fantasy studs -- receivers taken in the first few rounds of a draft -- to wide receivers who weren't guaranteed a big enough role in the offseason to get drafted at all feels pretty lopsided, but it's a necessary exercise to see just how waiver-wire receivers compare to the real deal.

To do this, I'll break receivers into four groups initially.

The first includes the top-30 receivers drafted in a season, via FantasyFootballCalculator's average draft position. That's from the first round through the sixth or seventh, generally. The second group (late-round receivers) includes wideouts drafted outside the top-30 in ADP. The third group is the top-12 in-season pickups, and the fourth is the top-30 receiver pickups in our five-year sample.

That's not really ideal.

If you're not loading up on wide receivers early in your drafts (again, the top six or seven rounds, give or take), you may as well just wait to pick some up off of the waiver wire.

It's not quite that simple, but you're about equally likely to get usable performances from a waiver-wire addition -- even after the addition occurs and you miss out on the receiver's best games, as we saw in the previous section -- as you are from a receiver drafted outside the top 30. Other than the early-round studs, receivers don't really set themselves apart from the rest of the position.

Why? Well, it just makes sense, anecdotally. The instances where a pass-catcher goes from undrafted in the first half of your drafts or so to a legitimate, high-volume option on a weekly basis are just few and far between. Roger Lewis may have been the only healthy Giants wideout, but that's not enough for a team to throw him the ball 15 times a game the rest of the season and for him to turn those targets into consistent fantasy production.

That's a big check in favor of those espousing the ZeroRB strategy. By avoiding the injury-prone running backs, you can draft the more consistent receivers early. Of course, then you need to deal with waiver-wire or late-round running backs, which isn't easy, either, and the early-round running backs are big difference-makers.

We also need to account for missed games when comparing the waiver receivers to the drafted ones. Receivers aren't injury-proof, so we should factor that in when examining those who require high draft capital.

When we look at things in terms of all possible games played (so 15 games for the drafted receivers from Weeks 1 through 16, to account for the bye week and excluding the non-fantasy-relevant Week 17), here is how the hit rates look. For the waiver-wire receivers, this again just includes games after the addition occurs.

WRs All Weeks Possible
The top-12 receivers boosted the hit rates for the top-30 ADP group (the numbers we examined previously), which is to be expected. However, even spending third- through seventh-round picks (roughly the range the WR13 through WR30 gets drafted) on receivers is a slightly better bet than trying to find options from the waiver-wire when you're looking for WR12-caliber games.

The floor is lower for even the year's top pickups (but remember that the numbers for the top-12 waiver adds and the top-30 waiver adds are basically the same because we can't really select the best waiver-wire receivers easily) compared to top-12 draft picks.

On the same note, though, there's not that much separation between waiver-wire pickups and mid-draft receivers. The WR13 to WR30 group has a higher chance for big games and a higher floor compared to the waiver-wire options, but all things considered, it's not a huge discrepancy.

Bridging the Gap

Okay, so waiver-wire receivers generally fail compared to the league's established receivers. But waiver-wire running backs are kind of hard to find, as well.

So let's merge the two. This is our Rogue One.

The table below shows the percentage of weeks during which players hit their top-12, top-24, and top-36 threshold in PPR points. (As a reminder: for receivers, that's 19.5, 14.5, and 11.0 points; for running backs, it's 16.5, 11.5, and 7.5.) For drafted players, this accounts for missed games during the season. For waiver-wire options, we're looking only at the games after they get added.

This is about as equal as we can make it when examining the risk and reward of drafting a back or receiver early.

RB/WR Comparison
This table essentially suggests that, even when you account for missed games from drafted players, you're most likely to get a high-ceiling and high-floor outing from a top-12 drafted running back. Again, this isn't just the12 highest-scoring running backs on the year. Just the first 12 off the board.

Top-12 receivers are next on the list in terms of big games (as measured by the top-12 cutoff), but top waiver-wire adds at running back actually possess a higher floor than top-12 receivers.

That makes sense because we can always throw our waiver funds at a back who is slated to get volume for a few weeks, even if he doesn't do a ton with his touches. The guaranteed volume can lead to a decent floor (7.5 PPR points, in this case), compared to 11.0 PPR points needed for a top-36 showing from a receiver.

But taking running backs in the middle rounds (four through seven, or so, is least likely to yield success), based on this test. The WR13 to 30 is generally a better bet than the RB13 to 30 in terms of ADP.

Again, this isn't to say that we can't try to find usable receivers or running backs from the waiver-wire. That's silly.

The most actionable takeaway from all of this is probably that we should try to trade our waiver-wire receivers for more established receivers who are struggling to produce or for another position of need. There's obviously a demand for replacement receivers from the waiver-wire, but they just don't live up to the hype.

So instead, we can try to use the knowledge of how likely we are to fail with our waiver-wire pickups to make use of sounder strategies during the fantasy season.