Which Fantasy Football Wide Receivers and Running Backs Were Truly Sleepers and Busts This Season?

Drafting running backs and wide receivers early is common in fantasy football, but which strategy yielded the best results in 2014?

An inevitability of every season is that there will be players taken early in fantasy drafts who fail to meet expectations and become busts, dragging down with them the teams that sacrificed a roster spot for them. And every season there are players who emerge from out of the free agent ranks to lead teams to the promised land of a league championship.

To visualize who these players were this past season, I took the top 100 players at both the wide receiver and running back positions (as ranked on a points-per-game basis using a point-per-reception scoring format) and looked at how they fared compared to their average draft position.

You can view the graphs here for running backs and wide receivers.

How These Graphs Work

Each plot is a representation of the end of season rank for each wide receiver or running back in a full PPR league (x-axis) versus their average draft position (y-axis) at each respective position.

These plots allow us to visualize which players outperformed their average draft position (fall above the diagonal line) and players that were busts and underperformed (falling below the diagonal line). Most players clustered into three distinct regions:

Green region: This region describes players who outperformed their average draft position, being drafted outside the top 30 of their respective positions and ending the season as a top-30 player (top 30 was chosen as a cutoff as these players would be ranked as a wide receiver #3 or better for a 10-team league). For example, Odell Beckham, Jr. had a very low average draft position (63rd) but ended the season as the top wide receiver on a points-per-game basis.

Orange region: These are players performing at their expected level of production. For example, Marshawn Lynch was the fifth running back taken off the board in most leagues, and finished the season as the sixth-best running back.

Purple region: The busts. These are players drafted in the top 30 of their respective positions, ending the season outside the top 50 (top 50 was chosen as the cutoff as these players would qualify as a wide receiver or running back #6 or worse in a 10-team league). For example, Zac Stacy was the 15th drafted running back in most leagues, but finished as the 52nd-best running back on a points-per-game basis.

Breaking It Down

When we look at the individual players falling into each region, we see that this visual representation does a great job of displaying which players over and underperformed for their fantasy football owners this season:

Bust Wide Receivers:
Victor Cruz (ADP: 16, Actual Rank: 50), Pierre Garcon (ADP: 15, Actual Rank: 56), Cordarrelle Patterson (ADP: 18, Actual Rank: 91), Percy Harvin (ADP: 19, Actual Rank: 55), Michael Crabtree (ADP: 20, Actual Rank: 54), Michael Floyd (ADP: 21 Actual Rank: 51), and Wes Welker (ADP: 27, Actual Rank: 72).

There were seven wide receivers drafted in the top 30 of the position who failed to finish in the top 50. Many of these players suffered from poor quarterback play, including Pierre Garcon and Michael Floyd, and could be good bounce-back candidates. Others remain risky plays, including Wes Welker, who looks like age and concussions have finally caught up with the aging wide out, and Cordarrelle Patterson, who has struggled to gain a grasp of the NFL game to consistently contribute at the wide receiver position in Norv Turner’s offense. Patterson finished the season the with second-lowest Target Net Expected Points (NEP) total in the NFL among receivers.

Bust Running Backs:
Adrian Peterson (ADP: 3, Actual Rank: 54), Doug Martin (ADP: 11, Actual Rank: 55), Montee Ball (ADP: 12, Actual Rank: 49), Zac Stacy (ADP: 15, Actual Rank: 52), C.J. Spiller (ADP: 17, Actual Rank: 54), Toby Gerhart (ADP: 21, Actual Rank: 66), Ben Tate (ADP: 22, Actual Rank: 61), Chris Johnson (ADP: 25, Actual Rank: 56), Ray Rice (ADP: 26, Actual Rank: 101), and Bishop Sankey (ADP: 27, Actual Rank: 64).

10 running backs drafted in the top 30 of the position qualified as busts this season. These include players drafted in the first three rounds in many leagues, like Doug Martin, Montee Ball, Zac Stacy, and C.J. Spiller, as well as sleeper picks that went overdrafted due to preseason hype such as Toby Gerhart and Ben Tate.

While poor offensive line play can explain away the failures of some of the players on this list, for the most part, these players were usurped on the depth chart by younger, more explosive running backs. The best examples of this include Ben Tate being overtaken by the rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West in Cleveland, and Zac Stacy being overtaken by rookie Tre Mason in St. Louis. According to our advanced numbers, both Tate and Stacy were far worse than their younger teammates.

Sleeper Wide Receivers:
Odell Beckham, Jr. (ADP: 63, Actual Rank: 1), Mike Evans (ADP: 39, Actual Rank: 14), Golden Tate (ADP: 33, Actual Rank: 15), DeAndre Hopkins (ADP: 42, Actual Rank: 18), Kelvin Benjamin (ADP: 38, Actual Rank: 19), Brandon LaFell (ADP: 77, Actual Rank: 20), Brandin Cooks (ADP: 32, Actual Rank: 23), Steve Smith (ADP: 54, Actual Rank: 24), Anquan Boldin (ADP: 41, Actual Rank: 25), and Martavis Bryant (ADP: 94, Actual Rank: 29)

There were a total of 10 wideouts who greatly outperformed their average draft position. For the most part, a large proportion came from the outstanding rookie class of 2014: Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Brandin Cooks, and Martavis Bryant. The remaining wide receivers either outperformed lowered expectations brought on by their age and situation (Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin) or received a boost with a change in scenery (Brandon LaFell and Golden Tate).

Sleeper Running Backs:
Ahmad Bradshaw (ADP: 51, Actual Rank: 8), Justin Forsett (ADP: Undrafted, Actual Rank: 9), C.J. Anderson (ADP: 79, Actual Rank: 11), Mark Ingram (ADP: 41, Actual Rank: 12), Lamar Miller (ADP: 32, Actual Rank: 14), Jeremy Hill (ADP: 44, Actual Rank: 15), Fred Jackson (ADP: 37, Actual Rank: 17), Matt Asiata (ADP: 63, Actual Rank: 19), Ronnie Hillman (ADP: 72, Actual Rank: 20), Tre Mason (ADP: 54, Actual Rank: 23), Jonathan Stewart (ADP: 49, Actual Rank: 24), Branden Oliver (ADP: Undrafted, Actual Rank: 28), and Roy Helu (ADP: 69, Actual Rank: 30).

There were a total of 13 players who greatly outperformed their preseason rankings. We're in a different NFL, and because backup and rookies running backs have found an easier route to meaningful playing time (and therefore production), it hasn’t necessarily been as imperative to draft a bell cow running back in the first three rounds as it has been in past seasons. That is, if you can get them off the waiver wire and spot them effectively during your draft.