How Changes in Wide Receiver Average Draft Positions Should Shift Your Fantasy Football Strategy
If you're just diving into best-ball fantasy football drafts this offseason, there are going to be a few things that are a bit jarring.
Wide receivers are flying off the board at an incomprehensible rate, leaving the pickings slim after only a few rounds. You could be a receiver without much of a track record at all and still be taken ahead of a good number of running backs who figure to control the market in their team's backfield. This is a strong deviation from what we've seen in the past.
It would be unwise to simply ignore this and use the same draft strategies you've defaulted to in the past. By doing so, you're going to inherit a jackload of opportunity cost, which is no bueno, boss.
Let's take a deeper look at the fantasy landscape's current state of affairs to see what types of adjustments we need to make.
Comparing 2016 to 2015
Before we can get too much into the analysis, it'd probably help to show you all just how crazy this shift is. We're not talking about some minor, rinky-dink changes in average draft position (ADP). This is a complete transformation of how people are drafting wide receivers.
Let's compare the ADP of the top 50 wide receivers taken off the board over the past two seasons. This is all based on My Fantasy League's ADP data for their best-ball drafts, which consist of 12 teams and full point-per-reception scoring.
Ideally, we'd compare the composition of drafts now to what they were in 2015 at this same point in the offseason. However, that data was not available, so the 2015 ADPs are based on the composite rankings over the whole draft season. It seems, though, as if we'd be seeing a sizable change no matter when we got the data.
Outside of being relatively close at the slots for the 8th- and 47th-drafted wide receivers, there's a big gap across the board.
The biggest differences between 2015 and 2016 occurred in the teens and in the low 30s. There was at least a 30% gap at every slot from wide receiver 12 to 22 outside of a 27.36% gap at wide receiver 17. Then it bumped back out to 25.46% at wide receiver 30 and stayed above 20% until wide receiver 38. That's a full 15-slot shift for wide receiver 38 from last year to now, and that isn't even the largest jump on the board.
Me thinks we can say with certainty that this would have implications on the way we're drafting. How should we be adjusting to this new mindset when making our selections?
Increased Opportunity Cost
I'm used to going all-in on running backs early on in drafts, but with this new wide receiver ADP distribution, that's not really an optimal plan of attack.
If wide receivers are going sooner, that's going to push running backs down the ADP totem pole. The chart of their ADP's looks a lot like the wide receivers, just reversed.
You can now draft the seventh- and eighth-ranked running backs a full 10 picks later than you could have done last year. The drop at the 23rd running back is 19 spots. The gap between last year's ADP and this year's doesn't decrease until you get into the mid 30s.
Wide receivers are going earlier, and running backs are going later. That's something we need to factor into our decision-making.
Let's say I'm drafting out of the eighth slot in a 12-team draft. There, I decide to take David Johnson, who is going at pick 8.14 on average, according to the same ADP rankings used for the wide receivers. I'd be more than happy with that outcome given the silliness Johnson unleashed on the league last year.
Then I'm on the clock in the second with pick 17. There, I can either go with Jamaal Charles -- the sixth-ranked running back -- or a wide receiver. Which way should I be leaning?
In the past, it wouldn't have been an issue to keep chugging away on the running backs. You can get the third- and sixth-ranked running backs in the same draft? You're probably off peeing your pants, and I don't blame you. Now, it's a much more difficult decision.
If I were to pick Charles, that would mean my next chance to snag a wide receiver wouldn't come until the 32nd overall pick. As you can see on the chart above, that puts me at the 19th-ranked wide receiver, which is currently Julian Edelman. He's followed by Martavis Bryant (rest in peace), Josh Gordon, and Randall Cobb. If I went with a wide receiver in the second, my most likely targets would have been Alshon Jeffery, Mike Evans, and Keenan Allen. There's nothing wrong with that second grouping, but there's a clear gap in the floor and upside combo between the second rounders and those in the third.
What if I were to take a wide receiver in the second? Then my top choice at running back in the third would possibly be Eddie Lacy, who has an ADP of 32.52. Lacy's a guy with first-round upside on a high-powered offense. He -- like those third-round wide receivers -- has his question marks, but that's not bad considering the draft slot.
Even when you dip further, there are intriguing running backs on the board. You could get Dion Lewis or DeMarco Murray in the fourth, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in the fifth, or Melvin Gordon (whom I'm buying feverishly) in the sixth. When you look at the wide receiver landscape in those rounds, things are much less rosy.
This almost necessitates that even the staunchest running-back supporters snag some wide receivers early on. When you allocate your best resources to running backs, you are going to leave yourself dangerously thin at wide receiver. The abundance of palatable running back options available in later rounds has significantly reduced the opportunity cost of selecting wide receivers.
It would be easy to say from this that we need to go heavy at wide receiver early on. While that would likely be better than going nuts on running backs, I don't think that's entirely necessary.
Rather, the strategy could be to make sure to get a proper mix of both assets for the first seven or so rounds. This way, you can have exposure to those top-flight wide receivers without completely punting the running-back position. I don't have an issue with selecting a running back in the first round, but if I do, I'm far more likely to select a wide receiver in the second.
We can be stubborn in our draft tendencies if we want, but that's not how it should be. Instead, we should be adjusting our strategies based on the flow of each individual draft so that we don't end up taking a gut punch at a certain position. Based on what we've seen with this year's ADP thus far, that means prioritizing wide receivers early so we don't end up counting on unproven assets to carry the load.