Roster Maximization: The Case for Wide Receiver Streaming

Pat Thorman focuses on the strategy of wide receiver streaming in fantasy football and uncovers more supporting evidence for its usage.

| 4 years ago

Pat Thorman focuses on the strategy of wide receiver streaming in fantasy football and uncovers more supporting evidence for its usage.

Roster Maximization: The Case for Wide Receiver Streaming

In the third installment of our series in which we take a closer look at the feasibility of streaming different positions on a fantasy football roster, the wide receivers get to go under the microscope. Pretty much everyone has an idea of what streaming entails, and if you do not (or even if you do, and missed the first two articles), it is explained in more detail in both of our prior looks at tight ends and quarterbacks.

One misconception that’s popped up is the idea that streaming is accomplished solely by adding and dropping players during the same week they are to be started. While that is predominantly true when streaming fantasy defenses, or even starting pitchers in fantasy baseball (where the term seems to have originated), for our purposes we will also include the shuffling of bench players in and out of an active lineup under the same overall heading.

So you’re really going to tell us that it’s possible to stream everyone except running backs?

The bottom line is that unlike our findings in both the tight end and quarterback cases, streaming wideouts will not provide a significant enough advantage on a consistent enough basis to make it a cornerstone of your overall fantasy football strategy. While this does not mean that defensive matchups should be ignored when debating which wide receiver to start on a given week (more on this later), the method in which a team is drafted should not be significantly altered with streaming in mind.

Let’s start by taking a look at the overall points per game (PPG) averages for five tiers worth of wideouts, listed by their overall average. Their PPG average when playing both top (T-1/2) and bottom-half (B-1/2) defenses, as ranked by wide receiver fantasy points surrendered, is then listed in the columns to the right of that.

WR Group (avg PPG) PPG against T-1/2 WR defenses PPG against B-1/2 WR defenses
WR 1 – WR 10 (12.5) 10.9 avg PPG 13.6 avg PPG
WR 11 – WR 20 (10.0) 9.6 avg PPG 10.4 avg PPG
WR 21 – WR 30 (8.5) 7.3 avg PPG 9.5 avg PPG
WR 31 – WR 40 (7.9) 7.8 avg PPG 8.1 avg PPG
WR 41 – WR 60 (6.8) 6.2 avg PPG 7.4 avg PPG


Nothing really jumps out like it did with the similar quarterback and tight end numbers.

Unlike tight ends and quarterbacks, there is less variation in the performance of lower-tier wideouts when they play easy versus hard fantasy defenses. The fact that there is less of a reward for streaming your wideouts against the easier defenses, even if executed well, makes it less appealing right away.  This is especially true if we view the last two receiver tiers combined – something that makes sense to do when considering the comparatively small number of rostered players at the other two positions.

This is more clearly illustrated in the table below.  Here we can see the PPG difference registered at each position and tier when started against T-1/2 versus B-1/2 defenses, followed in parenthesis by a look at how it stacks up against each tier’s overall PPG on a percentage basis.

  Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3 Tier 4 Tier 5
QB 1.8 (+9%) 5.9 (+36%) 3.5 (+24%) NA NA
TE 0.7 (+8%) 2.7 (+46%) 1.2 (+26%) NA NA
WR 2.7 (+22%) 0.8 (+8.0%) 2.2 (+26%) 0.3 (+4%) 1.2   (+18%)

*All above tiers consist of groups of 10 except for the third tight end tier, which includes only the 20th through 25th ranked scorers from 2012. Additionally, the fifth wide receiver tier includes 20 wideouts, which was done to capture more of the relevant depth seen in a typical league. As usual, Week 17 statistics were not utilized in any data.

With quarterbacks and tight ends, the second (and to a lesser degree, third) tier is where the streaming value lies. These groups consist of players who usually are not starters on a fantasy team, but are commonly held as backups and or can even be free agent fodder. With wide receivers, that type of player falls into the lower tiers, and as can be seen above – consistently successful streaming against weaker defenses is not rewarded as well as with the two more shallow positions.

But starting a third tier WR versus B-1/2 defenses almost produces the second tier’s average PPG!

When looking at the quarterbacks, it was determined that a well-streamed player from the second tier (QB 11 – QB 20) could, on average, approximate 91.7 percent of the average of the top tier’s per game point output (19.0 vs. 20.7 PPG). Tight ends could be streamed with nearly the same level of success, given that the second tier scored 7.41 PPG when started against B-1/2 defenses, and the average of the top tier was 8.18 – good for a 90.6 percent approximation. With wideouts, the story is different.

The problem is that the second and third tier receivers are all fantasy starters, and it costs more draft capital to roster them than it does a second or third tier quarterback or tight end. The value that an owner gains by waiting on the selection of a future streamer at those two spots is not available within those corresponding tiers of wideouts. Second tier quarterbacks can be had anywhere from the 10th round to the 15th, and tight ends from the 12th to the 15th – or even deeper than that on occasion (according to My Fantasy League ADP data).  Second tier wideouts are usually gone by the sixth round or earlier.

So basically this was a valueless exercise, huh?

Not really. If nothing else it goes to show how much more advantageous it is to stream tight ends and quarterbacks, while you use the majority of your draft capital on running backs and (to a lesser extent) wide receivers.

However, there is something else. This data also helps to reinforce the use of matchup analysis when it comes to weekly lineup decisions, even if you are not streaming in the strictest sense of the word. The table below lists the average PPG total of each tier (bolded).  Under each of those is the PPG figure of the various tiers (listed to the left), when started against B-1/2 defenses, followed by its percentage of the bolded PPG average. For instance, Tier 4 wideouts average 8.1 PPG against B-1/2 defenses, and that 8.1 PPG figure equates to 81 percent of Tier 2’s overall PPG average (10.0 PPG).

  Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3 Tier 4 Tier 5
Tier 1 12.5 PPG        
Tier 2 10.4 (83%) 10.0 PPG
Tier 3 9.5 (76%) 9.5 (95%) 8.5 PPG
Tier 4 8.1 (65%) 8.1 (81%) 8.1 (95%) 7.9 PPG
Tier 5 7.4 (59%) 7.4 (74%) 7.4 (87%) 7.4 (93%) 6.8 PPG

While this does deliver the disappointing news that the lower two tiers cannot reasonably approximate the top 20-30 wideouts (Tier 5’s PPG average against B-1/2 defenses does not even reach 60% of Tier 1’s overall average), there is a useful nugget here. Each tier, with the exception of Tier 2, approximates at least 93 percent of the overall PPG average of the tier directly above it, when started against B-1/2 defenses.

This is certainly not going to move mountains on draft day or rattle the windows of PFF Towers, but it does give fantasy owners some wiggle room. If by playing the matchups, a drafter can reasonably count on 95 percent of Tier 3 wideout production (which is starter level in most leagues, especially those that have an active Flex spot), that will afford them some more time at the draft to roster that third receiver.

In fact, this persuasively argues that an owner can theoretically boast a roster populated by pass catchers who, at first glance, seem to rank a tier lower than they “should” – and still recoup roughly 90 percent of the production his receiving corps “should” be generating. There’s definite value in having confidence that playing the matchups will yield better-than-expected output.

Okay, at least you didn’t totally waste your time with all of this. Anything else?

We’ll end with a couple notes on each player that stood out when gathering the data. Some of it is coincidental, and in several cases the numbers were affected by a lack of games played either against T-1/2 or B-1/2 defenses. However, here are a few notables:

  • Atlanta’s stud wideouts made their hay against different kinds of opponents.  Julio Jones feasted on the weaker WR defenses to the tune of 13.8 PPG, and was quiet at a church mouse against stiffer competition (just 6.3 PPG). Roddy White, however, came up big against the big boys with a 17.9 PPG average. Perhaps it was a sign of their relative reliability. Or maybe it was a sign that they only played four T-1/2 wide receiver defenses.
  • Dez Bryant of the Cowboys, and not Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, had the best PPG average against bottom half defenses. His 18.0 PPG is more than twice the overall average of what the third tier produces on a per game basis. Heck, it’s nearly double the second tier’s overall PPG.
  • Not that Calvin is any slouch. 2012’s overall PPG leader among wideouts bested the second tier’s per game average while matched up against T-1/2 wide receiver defenses.
  • Wes Welker, then with New England, faced a league-high 12 T-1/2 receiver defenses, and acquitted himself nicely. His 11.1 PPG average against the tougher half of the league was nearly four more points than he averaged against easier competition. Are possession receivers more apt to put up better numbers against the better defenses?
  • Building off of that last question, many of the pass catchers with “reversed” performances (better against tougher competition), seem to be possession types. Crabtree, Welker, Cobb, Amendola, Kerley, Bess, Brown, Little, Stevie Johnson, Wayne, and Decker all fall near the very bottom of the league in average depth of target (aDOT).
Player Games Played Average PPG Avg vs. T-1/2 D Avg vs. B-1/2 D PPG Difference
D. Bryant 15 13.4 8.3 18.0 9.7
Ju. Jones 15 11.8 6.3 13.8 7.5
M. Colston 15 10.4 7.1 13.3 6.2
G. Tate 14 7.2 5.6 11.4 5.8
V. Cruz 15 10.5 7.5 13.2 5.7
J. Blackmon 15 6.9 4.0 9.5 5.5
C. Johnson 15 14.5 11.0 16.3 5.3
D. Bowe 13 7.5 4.8 9.9 5.1
T. Smith 15 9.0 6.0 11.0 5.0
P. Harvin 9 11.1 8.5 13.3 4.8
D. Thomas 15 12.2 9.6 14.0 4.4
B. LaFell 12 7.4 5.4 9.4 4.0
V. Jackson 15 12.1 9.6 15.0 3.2
A.J. Green 15 13.4 12.0 15.0 3.0
S. Rice 15 7.8 6.8 9.8 3.0
D. Jackson 11 7.4 6.1 9.1 3.0
B. Marshall 15 14.1 12.4 15.3 2.9
J. Gordon 15 7.1 5.9 8.8 2.9
Ja. Jones 14 10.7 9.1 12.0 2.9
K. Britt 13 6.1 4.9 7.6 2.7
B. Stokley 13 6.1 4.6 7.1 2.5
S. Smith 15 9.1 7.9 10.1 2.2
A. Boldin 15 7.7 6.4 8.6 2.2
J. Maclin 14 8.5 7.2 9.4 2.2
M. Wallace 15 8.8 7.5 9.6 2.1
M. Floyd 14 8.0 7.3 8.9 1.6
A. Roberts 14 7.6 6.9 8.5 1.6
K. Wright 14 5.9 5.1 6.7 1.6
B. Hartline 14 7.6 7.1 8.6 1.5
N. Washington 15 6.4 5.6 7.1 1.5
A. Johnson 15 11.3 10.6 13.8 1.4
C. Shorts 14 9.9 9.1 10.4 1.3
B. Lloyd 15 7.6 7.4 8.5 1.1
P. Garcon 9 9.3 8.5 9.5 1.0
J. Nelson 11 9.3 8.7 9.6 0.9
G. Little 15 5.3 5.0 5.8 0.8
L. Fitzgerald 15 6.8 6.6 7.3 0.7
M. Austin 14 8.7 8.4 8.9 0.5
B. Gibson 14 6.8 6.5 6.9 0.4
H. Nicks 12 7.3 7.1 7.4 0.3
S. Moss 15 6.9 6.8 7.0 0.2
D. Avery 15 6.4 6.4 6.5 0.1
J. Kerley 15 5.7 5.8 5.6 -0.2
R. Wayne 15 10.7 11.0 10.4 -0.6
S. Johnson 15 8.6 8.9 8.2 -0.7
C. Givens 14 6.0 6.3 5.4 -0.9
M. Williams 15 9.4 10.0 9.0 -1.0
L. Moore 14 9.1 9.8 8.5 -1.3
E. Decker 15 11.0 11.8 10.4 -1.4
Heyward-Bey 14 6.1 6.7 5.3 -1.4
R. Cobb 15 10.4 11.4 9.8 -1.6
M. Crabtree 15 9.1 10.0 7.7 -2.3
T.Y. Hilton 14 8.1 9.8 7.2 -2.6
D. Amendola 10 8.2 8.9 6.3 -2.6
D. Moore 14 7.8 9.0 6.1 -2.9
D. Bess 13 6.4 7.3 4.4 -2.9
W. Welker 15 10.4 11.1 7.4 -3.7
D. Alexander 9 10.9 12.2 8.5 -4.0
A. Brown 12 8.5 11.1 6.7 -4.4
R. White 15 11.5 17.9 9.2 -8.7


Follow Pat on Twitter: @Pat_Thorman … and our main feed: @PFF_Fantasy

Pat Thorman is a lead writer for PFF Fantasy and a Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner.

  • Ryan

    Are you going to do one for Running backs? I know its difficult to stream them but it would be interesting to know how matchup difficulty matters.

  • Pat

    Yes – even though it won’t amount to an argument for streaming RBs, it’ll be good to see how much of an advantage can be gained by starting RB3s or RB4s against bottom 1/2 fantasy RB defenses. Just to say we did : )