What Is a Waiver-Wire Wide Receiver Actually Worth in Fantasy Football?
Everyone who plays fantasy football has some good stories.
Usually, they're about a traumatic play, such as a fumble or gaffed touchdown, that cost or won them a championship. Sometimes they're about amazingly risky gamesmanship, such as starting a backup running back in hopes he'd vulture away the opponent's touchdown opportunity in a last-ditch effort to pull off a win.
Then there are the ones about league-saving waiver-wire pickups.
I don't know why -- and maybe it's just me -- but it always seems to be that waiver-wire running backs are the ones who really save the day in these tales.
But we all know that late-round tight ends such as Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert swung championships last season. Somebody in your league picked up Josh Gordon back in 2013 either at the end of the draft or off the waiver wire. And draft afterthoughts Andy Dalton, Carson Palmer, and Tyrod Taylor types from 2015 kind of grow on trees with how pass-happy the NFL is nowadays.
Now, we've already examined the numbers behind waiver-wire pickups for running backs. And things aren't quite as peachy as they might seem. Finding waiver-wire running backs is a tough game.
But if we really want to see how tough it is to nail waiver-wire running backs, we should also see if waiver-wire receivers are any better.
The Premise and the Approach
This is going to mirror our analysis of waiver-wire running backs, so I won't get too bogged down in the specifics of what's going on. You can read all about it for yourself.
But the gist is that we should actually start figuring out what the heck actually happens when hyped-up players are plucked from the waiver wire. Do they really help your team? Or does that only happen some of the time? Just how likely is it that they bust entirely? Using data from FleaFlicker.com, I tallied up data regarding the most-added receivers from the past six years in fantasy football, meaning single-week additions.
We're going to break down how the top 30 single-week adds from each season (prior to Week 15 so that we had at least three weeks of post-pickup data to rely on) fared among PPR receivers after being added to a significant number of fantasy teams. Is it any easier to find useful waiver-wire receivers than it is to find useful waiver-wire running backs?
The findings here are pretty fascinating, honestly, and not at all what I expected to see.
I'm not going to get into specific players and whether or not they've panned out because the receiver position is a bit less binary than the running back position. What I mean by that is that if a starting running back gets hurt, there tends to be a primary backup (especially if there's a monstrous jump in ownership for a specific player), and he either produces or he doesn't.
If a receiver gets hurt, targets are generally spread out to other receivers, tight ends, and running backs, and there aren't usually singular players who benefit. Of course, we all spend waiver claims on receivers, so we might as well figure out what's going on here. Simply put: it hasn't worked out often for the most popular adds each season.
Here are the weekly PPR ranks among the 180 receivers who made up the top-30 single-week adds over the past six seasons excluding weeks that yielded zeroes for bye weeks, injuries, or flat out goose eggs (for one reason or another). (In the table, "Week -1" refers to the week prior to being added, "Week 1" refers to the week after being added, and so on.)
An astounding 64.4% of the 177 receivers who actually played the week prior to getting added posted a top-12 receiver week in that week prior to the influx of waiver claims. By comparison, 36.3% of the top running back adds were RB12 or better before being added. This may suggest that receivers are getting added because of huge games and running backs -- likely -- are getting added because of injuries or expected opportunities. It makes sense, at least.
Really, though, this shows that we like to chase big games from receivers as a fantasy football collective, and things don't often replicate in the following weeks. A whopping 51.2% of these guys returned WR37 or worse finishes the week after being added, and only 30.7% of them return WR24 or better results in the week after the pickup.
If we open things up to those two larger pools -- WR24 or better (so, theoretically worth a start in 12-team leagues that feature two receivers) -- and WR37 or worse, things get pretty set in stone. If we include weeks that led to zeroes, we see that 28.3% of the games after pickups (Week 1s) have led to WR24 or better outings, and 55% have led to WR37 or worse outings for these 180 players.
It doesn't get better as the weeks move forward: the 28.3% chance of a WR24 or better week is the high-water mark for these waiver-wire additions, and the WR37 or worse rates climb to 60.6% in Week 2, 62.8% in Week 3, and 68.9% in Week 4.
But perhaps focusing on the top-10 adds each week will give us something more optimistic. Perhaps the more-added players are less speculative and a little more based on a big potential opening in the offense.
However, 30 of the 59 top-10 adds (50.8%) who played the next week repaid their new owners with a WR37 or worse outing the following week.
Just look at how anomalous the pre-pickup weeks have been for these guys.
We're buying receivers after they give us what they have to offer, and we're lighting our waiver-wire claims on fire as a result. And, yeah, there are exceptions to the rule, but the fantasy football community has had a really bad success rate overall with waiver wire receivers.
And we can learn from this.
Don't chase big games from receivers. That's the most significant in-season takeaway here. It can be tough if you're hurting for assets who can produce, but historically, these flashes in the pan are exactly that, and we're just buying them a week too late.
Problematically, reliable wide receivers aren't generally available after Round 5 or 6 of your drafts, and this makes an early-round-receiver strategy seem even more fruitful. However, you can't simply overlook how tough it is to find useful running backs late in the draft or on the waiver wire and focus solely on receivers and non-running backs in the draft.
This might all sound confusing, but really, what this comes down to is that we aren't infallible, and the probabilities and bust rates suggest that you should be targeting receivers and running backs early on in your drafts -- both, not just one or the other -- and targeting easy-to-replace positions such as quarterback and tight end at the end of the draft.
Because, while you can win the jackpot with a free agent running back or receiver, playing the waiver-wire lottery continues to be a losing battle over the long run.