Bust Rates Show Us That Wide Receivers Are More Important Than Ever in Fantasy Football

Players underperform their average draft position in fantasy football each year. What can we learn from it?

Is Joe Flacco elite, though?

No, of course he's not elite. Well, to me, at least.

Maybe someone out there thinks he is. Because, after all, listing players and placing them into these groups of adjectives really is a subjective exercise. I mean, if we're being honest with ourselves, at the highest of levels, Flacco is probably elite -- only 32 people in the world have a starting quarterback gig in the NFL, and Flacco is, at the very least, better than 10 to 15 of them.

There just aren't parameters set around what these superlatives even mean.

This is why I hate when people freely toss out the word "bust" in fantasy football discussions. Has Trent Richardson been a bust, both in real and fake football? Yes, we can all pretty much accept that. Was Calvin Johnson last year? Given the cost in obtaining him, some may say he was, while others will point to the fact that he still managed to produce seven top-24 PPR performances, which was only matched by 19 other wideouts.

There's a massive gray area that gets ignored when defining these underperforming players, as if the term bust is this obvious, black-or-white thing.

It's not. At all.

Understanding Bust Rates

Fantasy footballers will look at bust rates at a positional level -- not just a player level -- too. A huge reason folks decide to draft a quarterback early is because the position is pretty damn predictable -- for the most part, the top quarterbacks will produce (2015 aside). And consensus perception tells us that's sort of the case at wide receiver, while we're supposed to stay away from early-round running backs like they're street-vendor sushi.

But how real are these accepted truths at wide receiver and running back?

We'll peep the last five years of average draft position data -- all taken from's real PPR drafts that occurred after August 1st -- and see how wide receivers and running backs finished versus their average draft position. This exercise was done a couple of years ago with some interesting results, but with two more NFL seasons, it's time to refresh.

Early-Round Bust Rates

We'll start by looking at the bust rates at running back during the early rounds of drafts.

RB1 to RB6 RB7 to RB12 RB13 to RB18 RB19 to RB24
Median Rank 12 13.5 19.5 28.5
Finish as RB1 50.00% 50.00% 26.67% 13.33%
Finish as RB2 16.67% 23.33% 30.00% 30.00%
Finish as RB3 10.00% 13.33% 13.33% 13.33%
Finish as RB4 10.00% 10.00% 20.00% 16.67%
Finish as RB5 6.67% 0.00% 10.00% 16.67%
Worse Than RB5 6.67% 3.33% 0.00% 10.00%

The rows in the table above represent the group of 12 players that make up each positional category. For instance, "Finish as RB1" means the player finished as fantasy football's RB1 to RB12. Finishing as an RB2 would mean the guy ended the year as RB13 through RB24.

This is what I'm talking about with arbitrary parameters. To me, these make sense. To others, a bust is simply someone who doesn't outperform their average draft cost.

Getting into the numbers, though, we can see that there's really not a whole lot of difference -- at least over the last five years -- between a running back who was preseason ranked 1st through 6th versus one ranked 7th through 12th. That's actually a pretty significant change from what was published a couple of years ago.

If we're assuming what's happened over the last five years happens again next year, the takeaway, then, would be to not focus your efforts on the top backs, but perhaps look more towards the second round for your first running back. That is, of course, if this aligns with the top wide receiver group.

WR1 to WR6 WR7 to WR12 WR13 to WR18 WR19 to WR24
Median Rank 6.5 19.5 22 22.5
Finish as WR1 73.33% 33.33% 20.00% 26.67%
Finish as WR2 10.00% 23.33% 40.00% 33.33%
Finish as WR3 6.67% 20.00% 10.00% 16.67%
Finish as WR4 0.00% 16.67% 10.00% 13.33%
Finish as WR5 3.33% 3.33% 10.00% 10.00%
Worse Than WR5 6.67% 3.33% 10.00% 0.00%


This is probably a good time to bring up the concept of Value Based Drafting (VBD). Coined years back by Joe Bryant of Football Guys, VBD tells us that "the value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores, but by how much he outscores his peers at his particular position."

As I said, the idea was brought up years ago, and by now, this concept is almost second nature to the majority of fantasy players. And while there are flaws to VBD, it's been a great foundation to build on.

The idea of comparing within positions and not across positions is important.

The reason I bring this up is because using the same thought process for VBD can help us understand bust rates better. If you look at the charts above, what stands out? To me, it's the fact that the top wide receivers are so, so much safer than any other subset in the sample. And that makes them -- without factoring in projected point totals -- so, so valuable in fantasy football.

It's a pretty smart bet to snag a wideout if you have a top-half pick in your draft.

But that WR1-6 to WR7-12 drop-off isn't the only significant one shown above. After the RB13-18 group, you can see how things start to get a little dicey at the running back position. What this tells us is that after RB18 or so -- which has traditionally been in the middle of the fourth round, but this year may be closer to the fifth given the trend in drafting wideouts earlier -- you run the risk of your backs seeing a higher bust rate.

At the same time, there's not a whole lot of variance between the WR13-18 and WR19-24 group, meaning you may want to target the latter subset.

See how this all comes together?

Middle-Round Bust Rates

In the last analysis on bust rates, there seemed to be a pretty clear drop in safe production after the RB25-30 range. And, after adding the last two seasons into the mix, that still seems to be the case.

RB25 to RB30 RB31 to RB36 RB37 to RB42 RB43 to RB48
Median Rank 33.5 38 41.5 54.5
Finish as RB1 13.33% 6.67% 16.67% 6.67%
Finish as RB2 20.00% 16.67% 16.67% 13.33%
Finish as RB3 26.67% 23.33% 13.33% 26.67%
Finish as RB4 13.33% 20.00% 23.33% 20.00%
Finish as RB5 23.33% 13.33% 13.33% 6.67%
Worse Than RB5 3.33% 20.00% 16.67% 46.67%

The problem is, safety doesn't necessarily equate to value.

If you compare the RB25-30 range to the RB37-42 range, the major difference, really, is that the former group is hitting the RB3 mark at a much higher rate than the latter. Is that your goal? A simple, more-than-likely replaceable running back?

I hope not.

For some context, over the last five years in 12-team leagues, the RB25 has been drafted, on average, in the middle of the sixth round. The 37th-ranked running back has been selected towards the end of the ninth.

This isn't to say that you should blindly target running backs in these somewhat arbitrary ranges. But this is really where you'll often see pass-catching backs targeted, like Pierre Thomas in 2011, Fred Jackson in 2014, and Danny Woodhead in 2015. Oh, and Devonta Freeman was drafted in this range last year according to's data -- he finished as fantasy football's top back.

Essentially, what this middle-round data shows is that there's just not much of a difference between a back you'll select in the 6th or 7th versus one that you'd take in the 9th or 10th. As it stands today, a lot of intriguing options like Frank Gore, Jonathan Stewart, and Jeremy Hill fit the RB25-30 mold (according to's PPR average draft position data), which is a little frightening considering the information above.

I'd never advocate you avoid those players simply because of what's being presented, but it's still an interesting thought exercise.

Here's what it looks like for wide receivers:

WR25 to WR30 WR31 to WR36 WR37 to WR42 WR43 to WR48
Median Rank 36 36 46 59
Finish as WR1 20.00% 13.33% 0.00% 6.67%
Finish as WR2 10.00% 13.33% 20.00% 6.67%
Finish as WR3 20.00% 26.67% 20.00% 16.67%
Finish as WR4 10.00% 6.67% 16.67% 6.67%
Finish as WR5 20.00% 16.67% 13.33% 16.67%
Worse Than WR5 20.00% 23.33% 30.00% 46.66%

What you're going to notice is that the wide receiver position gets wildly unpredictable once we reach the double-digit rounds in drafts. This plays into the notion that you should be snagging wide receivers earlier rather than later, something that wasn't as evident in 2014 when the study was done.

Over the last five years, only two wide receivers drafted between WR37 and WR48 have finished as WR1s in fantasy football: Jordy Nelson (WR46 in 2011) and Alshon Jeffery (WR48 in 2013). That's it. Two guys out of 60. That means from about Round 9 through Round 12, your chance of snagging a top-12 wideout in a 12-team league is a little over 3%.

Again, that's not the case at running back, which should make you feel a little bit better about middle- to late-round backs versus wide receivers. This certainly plays into the shift in mindset among fantasy owners in drafting wide receivers early and often.

Late-Round Bust Rates

Lastly, let's take a look at the later rounds. We'll do this quickly since, as you'd guess, it's a crapshoot.

RB49 to RB54 RB55 to RB60 RB61 to RB66 RB67 to RB72
Median Rank 53.5 51 57.5 59.5
Finish as RB1 13.33% 0.00% 0.00% 3.33%
Finish as RB2 16.67% 3.33% 3.33% 0.00%
Finish as RB3 10.00% 13.33% 13.33% 13.33%
Finish as RB4 6.67% 23.33% 13.33% 16.67%
Finish as RB5 16.67% 23.33% 23.33% 16.67%
Worse Than RB5 36.67% 36.67% 46.67% 50.00%

And wide receivers:

WR49 to WR54WR55 to WR60WR61 to WR66WR67 to WR72
Median Rank44.558.56856.5
Finish as WR10.00%0.00%3.33%3.33%
Finish as WR220.00%3.33%0.00%10.00%
Finish as WR36.67%0.00%6.67%10.00%
Finish as WR430.00%26.67%16.67%13.33%
Finish as WR510.00%23.33%6.67%20.00%
Worse Than WR533.33%46.67%66.67%43.33%

As I said, the wide receiver position seems pretty random when looking at average cost versus postseason result. For whatever reason, the WR49 to WR54 group has performed better than wideouts ranked 37th through 48th over the last five years, but they've clearly shown very little upside. Meanwhile, you're still seeing later-round backs -- the RB49-54s -- finish as top-12 options. In fact, within that group, 4 of 30 running backs have been RB1s by season's end over the last five years: Darren Sproles in 2011, DeAngelo Williams in 2015, Knowshon Moreno in 2013, and Alfred Morris in 2012.

Fun fact: only one of those players was a true handcuff.


Guess what, guys? Winning your drafts in the middle and late rounds is really freaking hard.

If we were to take this data and generalize it, the main takeaways would be that selecting wide receivers early is smart and relying on wide receivers in the middle and late rounds is dumb, and we've certainly seen more running backs in the middle-to-late rounds succeed versus wide receivers.

The problem here, though, is that actually relying on those middle- to late-round backs still isn't a very easy thing to do. For example, there's about a 12.2% chance a back you select from Round 6 through roughly Round 11 becomes an RB1. You can increase those odds by collecting a library of backs, of course, but you limit that upside if you're spending that equity on any other position, especially at quarterback or tight end.

In other words, if you decide to forgo drafting at least one running back early, you better be ready to load up on the position consistently -- and I mean consistently -- in the middle rounds.

That is, if you don't want your fantasy team to bust.