NFL Fantasy Football: Wide receivers first…or running backs?

So... how'd that "no running back" plan work out for you?

It seems like just last season, all my savvy fantasy friends were extolling the virtues of the no-running-back offense. 

Now that I think about it, it was last season! “Wide receivers score the points,” they told me. “Running backs get hurt!” they said.

To those who went for that hype, let me ask: how’d that work out? 

2016 points review

Running backs made quite the comeback in 2016. In standard leagues, 27 running backs scored 10-plus points per game. Only 13 wide receivers could say that. 

Injuries, or the lack thereof, played a big role in the running backs’ resurgence. Fewer running backs missed considerable time last year than previous seasons. Eight scored more standard fantasy points than the top wide receiver. In fact, sixteen of the 24 top-scoring non-quarterbacks ran the ball. 

Of course, one year does not make a pattern. We can’t predict injuries. It was many seasons of devastating running back losses that led to the notion that running backs were not worth top draft picks anymore. 

But there was a bigger story than the rebirth of running backs last season. The more important trend is the precipitous drop in wide receiver production. 

Where’d they go? 

Not a single receiver topped 1500 yards last year. Only five scored ten or more touchdowns. Six wide receivers averaged more than 12 points per game, but only seven more managed double-digits. 

What happened to those two/three touchdown, 100-yard games we have come to expect in this wide-open era of football? 

The answer comes a little farther down the fantasy scoring charts. Since I play primarily in 12-team leagues, I decided the top 12 receivers represent WR1 fantasy options. I was interested in how much of a fall-off existed after that. 

I found that only five second-round receivers earned nine points per game. 17 more earned 8-8.9 per game. There is about a one point per game difference between the 18th and 35th-ranked wide receiver. In other words, our number two and three receivers are close to even on the points spectrum. 

It gets better. Number 48 is only half a point behind at 7.5. So now we realize our number two and number four receivers probably ranked within two points of each other in per game production. 

And the other guys?

Running backs have much larger production drop offs between number two and number three. Remember also that the position offers more points to begin with than the wide receivers. 

Once you get past the four elite running backs of 2016, there is a sharp drop in points-per-game. However, the 12th ranked running back still came in at 12.5 points per game, 20-percent higher than the 12th ranked wide receiver. RB2 options, plus a few RB3s, scored the same ten-points per game that the last WR1 accounted for. 

The 36th RB came in at 8.6 and the 48th scored 7 points per game. That is a three-point drop-off from RB2 to RB4, almost twice as much as WR2 to WR4. 

So that means…? 

Passing still rules the NFL game, but there are many receivers for quarterbacks to throw to. Three and four-wide receiver sets are common, as are pass-catching tight ends and running backs. 

The small production gap between the second and fourth-level wide receivers reflects a trend of spreading passes around. More importantly, it offers two fantasy strategies to consider: 

First, if your WR2, WR3, and WR4 have similar production numbers, should you consider platooning them based on weekly match-ups? 

Second, if you are platooning your second, third, and fourth receivers, should you draft your RB2 ahead of your second wideout?  In fact, maybe drafting a quarterback and tight end ahead of WR2 is a good idea. 

Sounds crazy 

Of course, that sounds crazy, but numbers don’t lie. We don’t expect passing trends to change. Premier receivers get the big catches, but the others- including your third and fourth string wide receivers- will get theirs, too. 

Receivers’ consistency will be valuable in the draft. A receiver with seven to ten points in each game is more desirable than someone with three in one game and 13 in the next. Do your homework on that.

But grab your running backs first! After all, only two of them will share the rushing points, while six or seven folks are out there sharing receiving yardage.  

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