Using FireFactor to Dominate Your Fantasy League: Wide Receiver Edition

More receivers are fantasy relevant than any other position. So just how big is the gap between the elite and the field?

[This is a continuation of my exploration of FireFactor, which is our way of ranking players compared to replacement players at the same position. I already discussed it in detail here while applying the ranking to the quarterback position. I've also discussed the running backs using FireFactor as well.]

No position is as deep, in terms of volume, in fantasy football as the receiver position. After all, there are 32 teams and most of them roll out at least two competent receivers on a given play, and some offer three or four capable options. Factor in the now pass-heavy nature of the NFL, and worthwhile fantasy receivers can come from all levels of the depth chart on a given team.

But just because a team's third receiver might offer some level of production doesn't mean he's a player you're eager to have on your squad, especially if you have to take him off the bench and place him into your starting roster.

Recently, a crop of studly receivers has emerged and moved up the draft board in both non-PPR and PPR leagues, begging the question of whether or not they're worth selecting over another position (meaning a running back). Some advice-givers swear by it. Some don't. But I'm here to show you how the numbers suggest you should approach the receiver position.

FireFactor and Receivers

If you're starting cold into the series, you'll need to read up on FireFactor, which I discuss in detail here. If you just want a quick summation, it's a value over replacement player-type (VORP) ranking that we're using at numberFire, a ranking that trumps traditional rankings that place players on a big board based more on "feel" than on analysis.

I'll begin by dissecting the intra-positional disparity that exists within the receiver position, and then discuss it in a broader context with the other positions.

The chart below displays the FireFactor rankings for a 12-team league that starts 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 2 receivers, 1 tight end, and 1 running back and receiver flex, meaning 36 receivers can be started in a week if all owners plugged a receiver into their flex spot.

ReceiverStandard FPFireFactorPPR FPFireFactor

I left as many increments in the chart as I did to display how gradually the point totals drop off, for the most part, starting from the top of the list. It's similar to the decline in quarterbacks, and it's dissimilar to the running back distribution, which plummets more significantly the further you descend down the list.

If you overlook WR1 (who we're projecting to be Calvin Johnson - but remember that names don't matter because it's about the philosophy and not the player evaluation), the cluster of receivers from second to eighth is pretty tight. Remember this when you are faced with a mid- to-late first-round pick.

According to the fantasy points, you don't need to rush to get a top-six receiver in terms of average draft position (ADP), but could rely on lower-level WR1s and higher-level WR2s for a marginal point reduction over the duration of the season.

Again, the point projections come from our fantasy football cheat sheet. You can feel free to disagree with who's going to end up where, but just consider how likely the final points distribution projects compared to what will actually happen regardless of which names fill the slots. That is to say that, even if we're way off on our player evaluations, it's unlikely that three receivers score 250 fantasy points and that the rest of the pack fails to hit 150, for a drastic example. The expected distribution is what matters.

Player evaluation ultimately ends with you!

The Weekly Game

So, if the yearly drop-off is gradual, that should mean that the margin between receivers on a weekly basis isn't very steep, right? Right. For this segment, I'll use the same settings I used for the running backs at this juncture: a 12-team PPR league with a receiver and running back flex position.

PPREstimated Weekly FPvs. WR1vs. WR12vs. WR24vs. WR36

The drop from WR1 to WR12 indicates that the difference between a fringe starter at receiver (like WR36, for instance) will be closer to the gap that exists in running backs than the one that exists in quarterbacks. However, after this, the decline levels out. The difference between WR12 and WR20 will be roughly less than a point per week.

The telling columns in this chart are "vs. WR12" and "vs. WR24." So many receivers hug either side of the weekly average that it really indicates how big of a sliding scale exists somewhere between WR12 and WR28 by year's end. Top-12 receivers are generally very valuable, but the rest are pretty equal unless you slip outside the top-30.

Applying FireFactor to Your Fantasy Draft

The gradual decline at receiver, to me, suggests that, if I can't comfortably draft who I think will end up as a top-10 receiver at a reasonable price, I might as well take a stab on a running back with a realistic shot to be a productive option, but not to draft a running back I don't like just because the numbers suggest it. Don't enter your draft with your picks already made.

This is a key element to understanding fantasy football as a whole. Evaluations matter and strategy matters, and making either mutually exclusive limits your potential success.

Say you're picking in the middle of Round 3 in a PPR league, and all the guys you think will end up as top-10 receivers are off the board. Receivers still on the board would might include Michael Crabtree, Roddy White, Wes Welker, Larry Fitzgerald, Victor Cruz, Pierre Garcon, Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson - you get the picture.

It's basically a guarantee that one of those guys, who should end up with comparable numbers, will make it back to you in Round 4, so you don't need to panic and extend a receiver run in the draft. Instead, you could use your new-found knowledge to draft a running back you perceive to be capable of putting up top running back production since the wide receiver talent doesn't drop very far at this point.

To support this point further, check out JJ Zachariason's study on wide receiver bust rate. Receivers with ADPs in the top 6 are incredibly consistent at finishing as top-12 fantasy receivers (73.33% of the time over the past 5 years), but the receivers available in Rounds 3 to 5 are basically the same player. The running backs aren't.

The real test, then, is when we jump up a round. When do you neglect a running back to opt for a receiver?

This is where player evaluation comes into play because the numbers, quite honestly, are tricky. Say the sixth-highest drafted receiver and running back are left on the board. You have a 73% chance to lock up a top-12 receiver and a 53% chance to hit on a top-12 back. I'd risk it on the running back, citing less of a drop-off at receiver, but you need to decide for yourself which you prefer, keeping in mind that top running backs provide a statistical advantage over top receivers.

Implementing FireFactor Into Your Fantasy Season

The longer I spend studying FireFactor to uncover positional inefficiencies, the more I appreciate being able to convey rough equivalents between positions like I did for quarterbacks and running backs. I'll do it again for receivers and keep it set to a 12-team, non-PPR league with a flex position (keeping in mind that you can always input your league settings on the cheat sheet page - which you definitely need to do to utilize FireFactor the right way).

FireFactor EquivalentFireFactorQBRBTE

When comparing receivers near the median of this subset (i.e. WR20) to quarterbacks, you should notice that these receivers align with middle-of-the-road quarterbacks (e.g. QB4-QB7). That makes sense, as they'll be drafted somewhere similarly. However, as the quarterback study showed, there's such a small difference between QB4 and QB16 that you should be willing to trade a good starting quarterback for a WR2 (WR12-WR24).

Additionally, elite receivers can't compare with the top running backs, but they are easier to peg, which might affect your perception of them on draft day. During the season, though, know that even if you drafted the best-performing receiver, he's less valuable than a legitimate fantasy RB1 (RB1-RB10).

As for tight ends, there's really no justifying any tight end over the consensus top receivers even if you want to cite the volatility of the running back position. Remember that when somebody offers you a tight end in a trade, and use it against people who overvalue the tight end position. But we'll get to that position next.