Owners are opting for non-running backs at the beginning of fantasy football drafts these days because the position tends to bust at a high rate. This is factual.
But as I showed last week, what most of these owners don’t realize is that the bust rate of an early-round running back versus a middle-round one is exponentially smaller. After the fifth round, your chance of actually hitting on a significant running back is in “good luck” territory. In fact, you may be better off just not drafting the position and hitting the waiver wire once the season starts, hoping a top-notch back gets hurt or a dude comes out of nowhere and steals a starting gig.
The problem is, you can’t simply select five straight running backs to start your draft, hoping a few of them hit. I mean, you can, but that’s probably not optimal, as other positions need to be drafted. Especially wide receivers, since every fantasy football lineup starts at least two each week.
So do wide receivers bust (I’m still contemplating calling this something different) at a similar rate as running backs do? Can you wait a little longer at wide receiver and still see decent hit rates later in your draft? Let’s take a look.
Bust Rates Among Receivers
Before I get going, make sure you’ve read the bust rate article on running backs in order to compare and contrast the two positions. The truth is though, there are far more similarities than there are differences.
Just like the last study, I took the top 48 preseason ranked wide receivers over the last five years (average draft position data courtesy of MyFantasyLeague.com), and grouped them into tiers of six. Why six? Well, this designates a high-end WR1 in a 12-team league, a low-end WR1, a high-end WR2, and so on.
I then compared the tiers to how the players within them finished the season. If a high-end WR1 finished with a rank between 1-12, he was a WR1. Had he finished with a rank of 13-24, he would have been a WR2. You get the idea.
Let’s first take a look at WR1 through WR24, or players you’d draft as starters in your league. Keep in mind that, according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, the 24th wide receiver, T.Y. Hilton, is being drafted at the end of the fifth round. This is eight picks after the 24th running back.
|WR1 to WR6||WR7 to WR12||WR13 to WR18||WR19 to WR24|
|Finish as WR1||73.33%||26.67%||23.33%||23.33%|
|Finish as WR2||13.33%||40.00%||26.67%||26.67%|
|Finish as WR3||3.33%||13.33%||20.00%||20.00%|
|Finish as WR4||0.00%||3.33%||16.67%||13.33%|
|Worse than WR4||6.67%||13.33%||10.00%||13.33%|
The first thing that jumps out in these particular tiers is the unbelievable consistency of top-tier wide receivers over the last five years. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise though. The wide receiver position has become anchored by a group of studs, and despite third and fourth wide receivers on team depth charts seeing more looks, the high-end players at the position are continuing to see a lot of volume. In addition, and probably most important to fantasy, they’re the players consistently getting double-digit touchdowns each year.
To be very clear, the top tier at wide receiver is much more friendly in terms of bust rates when compared to running backs. And to make the top tier at wide receiver even more enticing, you see that the next tier is arguably even worse off than the second one we see at running back. To put this another way, the top tier at wide receiver is better, and the second tier is worse, making it even more advantageous to snag an elite wide receiver in your fantasy draft.
Just for a quick comparison, the chart below shows the difference in bust rates between WR1s and RB1s in fantasy football over the last five years.
|RB1 to RB6||RB7 to RB12||WR1 to WR6||WR7 to WR12|
|Finish as RB1/WR1||53.33%||46.67%||73.33%||26.67%|
|Finish as RB2/WR2||26.67%||13.33%||13.33%||40.00%|
|Finish as RB3/WR3||10.00%||23.33%||3.33%||13.33%|
|Finish as RB4/WR4||3.33%||3.33%||0.00%||3.33%|
|Worse than RB4/WR4||6.67%||13.33%||6.67%||13.33%|
Next, reverting back to the wide receiver only chart, you see something that perhaps not a lot of folks would realize: WR13 to WR18 and WR19 to WR24 are nearly identical. Literally, the only difference between these two tiers over the last five years is a WR4 versus a player finishing outside the top 48 at the position. Other than that, it's identical.
Is this usable information? Most definitely. These wide receivers are generally being selected in Rounds 3 through 5, and if you know you’re getting the same type of production from a Round 5 guy as you are a Round 3 or 4 player, why would you reach? Perhaps this is the range where you snag your running backs, as there's more of a difference between the third and fourth tiers at that position.
Now, in the running back study, there was a significant increase in bust rates once you reached the RB25 range. That’s roughly the fifth round in a 12-team draft. As you can see from the chart below, things are fairly similar when it comes to wide receivers.
|WR25 to WR30||WR31 to WR36||WR37 to WR42||WR43 to WR48|
|Median Rank||37.5||46.5||Over 50||46|
|Finish as WR1||20.00%||6.67%||0.00%||10.00%|
|Finish as WR2||16.67%||13.33%||13.33%||6.67%|
|Finish as WR3||10.00%||10.00%||23.33%||20.00%|
|Finish as WR4||13.33%||23.33%||3.33%||20.00%|
|Worse than WR4||43.33%||33.33%||40.00%||53.33%|
One thing to note here is that the WR25 through WR30 tier seems friendlier (in terms of bust rates) than the RB25 through RB30 tier. The percentage of players who turn into WR1s is higher, as is the median rank of the position. The drop off from the WR19 to WR24 tier to the next, in essence, isn’t as great as it is at running back. In other words, you may be able to get away with snagging a player in this tier to be a starter - or at least a WR3 - for your team, unless you're in a league that starts at least three wideouts.
As you move down the list, you’ll generally see the same trends as you did with running backs. While some wide receivers – like 2013’s Josh Gordon – can hit tremendously, the odds in finding that player and owning him are slim. You may just be better off finding a guy like Keenan Allen on your waiver wire.
In total, five players in the WR31 to WR48 group have ended up as WR1s (remember, those are receivers ranked 1st through 12th) over the last five years. That’s one per season, and at random, you’d have just a 5.56% chance of finding that one. Double your odds, and that’s the chance of finding a WR2.
That gives us a 16.67% chance of drafting a usable wide receiver (WR1 or WR2) in Rounds 7 through 10 of your 12-team fantasy draft (that’s where WR31 through WR48 will typically be selected). If we were to assume the next tier of wide receivers busted at a similar rate (they don’t – it gets worse), in order to get a worthwhile receiver in your fantasy draft, you’d have to draft a wide receiver in every round from Rounds 7 through 12, assuming you're picking at random.
Stockpiling late doesn’t work as well as you thought, does it?
What Have We Learned?
The reason running backs and wide receivers are selected early in fantasy drafts has to do with two things. First, you start more of them in your fantasy lineup, so the need - the demand - of the positions is inherently greater than the tight end and quarterback spots. That's the most important reason, and it will stay that way until the normal fantasy league begins to start multiple quarterbacks and tight ends.
But second, owners generally understand that loading up at the two positions decreases the chance of a bust. Fantasy footballers are grabbing as much of the scarce resource as possible, because they're fully aware, due to the aforementioned supply and demand in fantasy football, that quarterbacks, tight ends, kickers and defenses are going to be available later. They'll be there for them. They're always there for them.
According to the bust rate data, the odds of you actually getting significant fantasy assets at wide receiver and running back past Round 5 or 6 aren't favorable. They just aren't. You may look at the current fantasy football board and say to yourself, "I can get Emmanuel Sanders in the sixth round, of course I'll just get a tight end in Round 4 and wait to get my second wide receiver then." The problem with that is, to be candid, arrogance. Does Emmanuel Sanders appear to have a lot of upside, and could he finish above his current draft cost? Certainly. Is it probable? No, it's not.
Sanders falls in the WR25-WR30 range, where just 36.67% of wide receivers have become WR1 or WR2s over the last five years. There's a 43.33% chance (43.33%!) that he would actually end up as almost completely worthless in fantasy football (worse than a WR4).
You can certainly be better than someone else at choosing the right players when the odds are against you, and our projections can really help with that. But if you know the odds begin to fall extremely far outside of your favor as you reach the fifth and sixth rounds of your fantasy draft, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to draft against position scarcity. That is, of course, unless you're willing to draft an incredibly risky team.
There's a common practice in fantasy football called Value Based Drafting (VBD). Coined by Joe Bryant way back in the day, the notion behind VBD is that "the value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores, but by how much he outscores his peers at his particular position."
In a way, this same idea can be attributed to bust rates. While it appears the bust rate of an early-round running back (or wide receiver) is unfavorable, when you compare it to the rest of the position, it's not. In fact, it's incredibly favorable.
When you're drafting your fantasy football team, don't lose sight of the obvious. Pretend pigskin is driven by supply and demand, and it relates to odds-driven games like poker far more than people tend to realize. Bust rates are certainly not the end-all, but they can also help you see the greater picture in fantasy.