2014 Fantasy Football in Review: Wide Receiver Consistency

Julio Jones had some explosive games this season, but he wasn't very consistent. Is that true for all stud wide receivers?

This is the third installment of a series that focuses on the consistency at each position in fantasy football from this past year. You'd be best suited to start at the beginning, with quarterbacks, which also serves as an introductory piece, or at least with running backs, as it's hard not to put the information about receivers in context with running backs.

But if you don't want to do either, that's fine.

Drafting wide receivers earlier and earlier in fantasy football is becoming popular, and when these guys put up 30-point games, everything is justified. But you have to consider the floors that these players possess, too, when looking at the bigger scheme of fantasy football.

Plus, if receiver numbers are up across the board, then it stands to reason that elite players lose their edge compared to fringe starters and replacement-level backs -- right? Well, that's what we're going to get into.

Defining the Process

I won't use up too much space here on my process, as I've done that twice already in prior installments. But the gist of it is that I collected weekly gamelogs of the top-48 scorers in standard, point-per-reception (PPR), and half-PPR and found the standard deviation of each player. With that, I was able to figure out the "realistic" floor and ceiling for each player, as adding and subtracting a standard deviation from the player's average indicates where 68% of his games would fall (or, since I excluded Week 17, 11 of his 16 games).

I can then also divide the player's average by that standard deviation and get a nifty number called the coefficient of variance, which acts as, basically, a volatility rating. Volatility isn't bad, per se, as it can really just indicate that a player has a big ceiling, but when viewed through a season-long lens, it also means games with low floors (think guys with the boom-or-bust monicker).

Are Receivers All or Nothing?

In the previous installment, we found out that 16 backs had a 68% ceiling of getting 20.0 fantasy points in half-PPR settings -- but excluding extremely volatile guys left us with only 12. What about wideouts?

Half-PPR68% CI Low68% CI High Half-PPR68% CI Low68% CI High
Odell Beckham9.9429.88 Emmanuel Sanders8.4523.68
Demaryius Thomas7.8528.14 Mike Evans3.6022.70
Jordy Nelson8.8126.83 DeAndre Hopkins3.8321.71
Antonio Brown12.6526.56 Randall Cobb9.0821.22
Julio Jones7.4326.52 Alshon Jeffery8.1520.47
Calvin Johnson3.7225.16 Julian Edelman5.9020.18
Jeremy Maclin5.5924.79 Golden Tate6.9820.17
Dez Bryant8.5024.58 Brandon LaFell5.2919.83
T.Y. Hilton6.8324.24 DeSean Jackson4.0819.64
A.J. Green5.1524.05 Brandon Marshall3.4919.37

17 wide receivers had a realistic ceiling of 20 points, five more than the running back position. (Also, 21 guys had a ceiling of at least 19.0 points.) This means a few things. The most obvious is that more wide receivers (in half-PPR scoring at least) at the top end have the ability to hit 20.0 points in 68% of their games (about 11 of the 16 included) than running backs. So, if you needed 20 points from your flex, you'd have a better chance to use a receiver there.

But going along with that is the floor. Only one receiver, Antonio Brown, had a floor in the double-digits this year. (Four running backs had that this year.) However, only six running backs had a floor of at least 8.0 in half-PPR settings. Seven wideouts did that. Still, in a head-to-head setting, the weeks when receivers hit their ceilings are nice, but their floors, by the very nature of their position, are the problem.

Receiver Consistency, Or: How Points-Per-Game Can Mislead

The floor ties into the problem of consistency.

Leaving behind the standard deviation for a bit, know this: 29 receivers averaged 10.0 or more half-PPR points in 2014. Only 24 running backs did that. But only 7 backs averaged 15.0 or more half-PPR points this season, and 10 receivers did that. This indicates a much more top-heavy distribution at running back.

But think of it as the flex position. Based on this, you'd probably rather start a receiver there than a running back because of the fantasy points per game, but do the consistency numbers support that?

Well, in a way, the usable receivers (those who averaged 10.0 or more half-PPR points per game) are more consistent than running backs. The largest coefficient of variance among the 29 qualified receivers was 0.80 by Sammy Watkins. For backs, it was 0.85 (Tre Mason), meaning he was a little more volatile than Watkins was. So, receiver points may not be as hit-or-miss as they might seem, and more receivers put up double-digit points this year than running backs did. So why is my tune not changed about preferring running backs? Well, two things: replaceability and that darn consistency thing again.

We'll stick to consistency for now. The problematic part of the puzzle is that, sure, receivers might be more consistent than backs over the course of the season (mainly because their roles are more solidified and players like C.J. Anderson post diminutive fantasy points until their time comes, diminishing their season-long consistency), but at the top end of things, backs were more consistent. Here are 12-most consistent backs and receivers among the top 24 in points per game.

DeMarco Murray30.28 Antonio Brown20.35
Fred Jackson220.39 Mike Wallace210.38
Arian Foster20.40 Randall Cobb110.40
Matt Forte40.43 Roddy White200.42
Lamar Miller160.45 Alshon Jeffery130.43
Ahmad Bradshaw110.45 Emmanuel Sanders70.47
Le’Veon Bell10.47 Golden Tate140.49
Mark Ingram100.49 Dez Bryant60.49
Justin Forsett80.50 Odell Beckham10.50
Eddie Lacy60.52 Jordy Nelson40.51
Marshawn Lynch50.54 Kelvin Benjamin190.51
Jonathan Stewart240.55 Julian Edelman160.55

The coefficient of variance is very, very similar between the most consistent of the two positions, but the points per game column isn't.

The only two top-10 running backs in points per game not in the top 12 in consistency were C.J. Anderson (who was the fifth-most consistent back in the second-half of the season when he started being featured) and Jamaal Charles, who would have made the cut if you exclude his 1.4 points in Week 2 when he left with an ankle sprain. I understand injuries are part of the game, but really, the top-10 backs in points per game were incredibly consistent compared to the rest of the position.

The same can't be said for wide receivers.

Only six of the top-10 wideouts were in the top half in consistency. I love that Demaryius Thomas, who was third at the position in points per game, had five games with 20-plus points (and three games with more than 30), but you have to live with his games with fewer than 8.0 points (of which he had three), too. Same with Julio Jones, the 22nd-most consistent receiver in the group. Sure, he was sixth in points and fifth and points per game, but you had to overcome the four weeks when he failed to put up 9.0 half-PPR points. Still, his monster ceiling seems worth the risk, but that's a decision you have to make for yourself.

It's not a drastic difference, really, but this again favors running backs.

Daily Fantasy Applications

There's no real ground-breaking news in this, but in terms of cash games (head-to-heads and 50-50s), spending up on receivers can give you a big boost. However, evidenced by the lower ceilings at the top end of the position, it's clear that spending on a player like Le'Veon Bell would be preferable than his teammate, Brown -- provided that you approach your cash games with the mindset of securing the highest floor possible. Of course, matchups matter, but the principle is important here. Paying up for receivers is to pay up for a, statistically, lower floor.

As for tournaments, it's clear that more receivers offer 20.0-plus ceilings than running backs, so more high-priced wideouts provide big ceilings than high-priced running backs. But you have to accept the fact that low-priced running backs -- even ones who step into ostensibly great roles such as Jerick McKinnon and Branden Oliver can't always produce, and that might handcuff your biggest wideout performances.

What It Means for the Position

None of this changes the fact that elite backs provide a greater advantage over the rest of the position than elite receivers do (based on this year, at least). It also doesn't suggest that investing heavily in wide receivers is preferable to backs (because of the problem of finding solid running back production), but it is clear that receivers are plentiful enough and now productive enough that they deserve the merit they get in terms of early draft picks.

If you want to construct your team for upside, then collecting a lot of receivers is the way to go -- especially if you can flex them -- considering that their floors aren't that low. But just know that, over the duration of the season, it would be more advantageous to your floor to start a stud running back than a stud receiver, based on this season's data at least.

Still, this isn't enough for me to advocate passing up on running backs early in the draft (considering the bust rates at the position), but if you find yourself without solid running back production, trying to improve your receivers is the next-best option (compared to upgrading at quarterback or tight end).

You can just as easily interpret this data in a way that justifies passing up on running backs and trying to land more players who provide a big weekly ceiling, but just know that you're subjecting yourself to a big drop at running back, one that is very difficult to overcome.

But could you really consider flexing a tight end over a weak running back or receiver? We'll check that out in the final installment and conclude on some things that we learned on the way.