The Demise of the Elite Fantasy Receiver

| 4 years ago

The Demise of the Elite Fantasy Receiver

Elite wide receivers in fantasy football are a dying breed.

Entering the 2012 season, there was a common thought within fantasy circles that the receiver position was “deep”. Back in August, a solid guy – like Eric Decker – could be had in Round 5. And given the rarity of every down running backs, the majority of fantasy owners waited a few rounds before getting their first pass catcher. Reaching for a wideout seemed risky because the position had so much depth.

Back then, describing the position as “deep” was definitely correct. We all willingly accepted it, and moved forward with the accurate draft strategy. When you could get Percy Harvin in the fourth round, why in the world would you get Larry Fitzgerald in the early second? After all, Fitz certainly had question marks at the quarterback position.

Our analysis typically stopped there, though. We didn’t ask ourselves, “why.” We didn’t necessarily look deeper into understanding why the position had so much depth in the fantasy space, and we sure didn’t seem to associate this to a common trend in the NFL.

I think analysts knew, but didn’t necessarily write a ton of content around it. I’d venture to guess, however, that the casual fantasy player didn’t. You see, there’s a reason the position has become, in a way, bottomless: While quarterbacks are throwing the ball at an insane rate, they’re also spreading the ball out more. When the ball is spread out more, top-notch receivers see the ball less.

Pretty obvious, right?

But seriously, could you imagine drafting multiple slot receivers before Round 6 in your 2003 fantasy draft? I mean, do you really think Randall Cobb would be nearly as relevant in Drew Bledsoe’s day? I’d hope not, because slot receivers didn’t see the field then like they do now.

The spread offense has “spread” fantasy points deeper into the waiver wire. Quarterbacks are putting up wild numbers, but top-notch receivers are posting the same kind of fantasy production they did when Quincy Carter was in the league.

For some evidence, take a look at the standard scoring fantasy outputs from top-5 wide receivers from 2004 through 2012:

2004 238 210 206 204 201
2005 237 205 202 201 189
2006 209 196 185 181 179
2007 287 226 225 211 201
2008 215 206 205 183 182
2009 212 204 198 190 187
2010 195 191 190 186 186
2011 265 216 214 208 189
2012 220 217 208 202 197

It’s clear that the fantasy production from these top receivers since 2004 has remained nearly constant. In fact, you could make the argument that top receivers’ productivity has declined in fantasy football over the last nine seasons.

To shed some more light on the matter, let’s compare how these receivers’ numbers stack up against the dramatic shift in quarterback play:

2004 375 362 306 303 300
2005 267 255 246 234 226
2006 309 269 262 256 251
2007 398 299 275 265 264
2008 305 292 282 277 275
2009 343 304 287 283 282
2010 284 281 278 265 263
2011 397 389 370 370 341
2012 345 337 337 315 310

As you can see, quarterback numbers are slowly shifting upward, hitting a ridiculous ceiling in 2011. Daunte Culpepper led a successful 2004 quarterback campaign, but besides that season, there’s a clear upward shift in fantasy points from the quarterback position. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

The representation above is noticeably small, and the top-5 quarterbacks don’t equate to the top-5 at a position like receiver or running back. I get that. But what this simply shows is the obvious: quarterbacks are scoring more in fantasy football.

So if quarterback fantasy output is increasing, and elite wide receiving talent is remaining the same, where are all the excess quarterback points going?

They’re going to Andrew Hawkins. They’re going to Brandon Stokely. They’re going to Tiquan Underwood.

As I mentioned above, the spread offense is the reason for the lack of elite receiver improvement in fantasy, given the quarterback play, over the last decade. Fantasy points are being littered throughout an NFL offense – whether it be to the usually-benched receivers, a second-string tight end or a third-down running back.

Does this mean we now should value quarterbacks more and wide receivers less in the fake football world? Not quite. We still have to remember the basis of fantasy football success: value.

Although it may seem reasonable to get a quarterback early and push your receiver depth back during draft time, we have to keep value in mind. You’re still selecting 2 or 3 wideouts for your starting fantasy lineup compared to just a single quarterback, and while quarterback numbers are up, all quarterback numbers are up. Elite receivers, even though their numbers aren’t increasing, are still vital to fantasy success because of predictability and week-to-week consistency.

It comes down to supply and demand. When there’s less of something, but the requirement is still there, you need that something more. There are absolutely zero question marks when it comes to Calvin Johnson, and you should feel pretty good about drafting AJ Green or Brandon Marshall, too. Why? Because there just aren’t wide receivers out there like that anymore. Team offenses rarely go through one receiver nowadays, and if you can obtain one of those receivers, you’re in great shape.

Before you take this the wrong way, I’m not saying that your 2013 draft should be solely focused around obtaining one of these players. There are plenty of variables that go into a fake football draft, and it’s far too early to dissect exactly where you should begin to reach for an AJ Green. But come draft time, if you’re in prime position to take an elite receiver, you may not want to hesitate. You’d be snagging a player who may give you an incredible edge given the limited quantity of superior players at his position.

Stud running backs should always be your number one priority in fantasy football (given a standard lineup, of course). And if you miss out on an elite receiver early – which is very possible given the lack of depth at the top and the apparent fluff in the middle at the position – you may want to keep building up your running back stash during the initial portions of your draft. After all, there are TY Hiltons, Randall Cobbs and Cecil Shortses to draft in the middle rounds of every draft.

The wide receiver position is deep. It’s going to continue to be deep. And it’s all because the elite receivers in fantasy football are a dying breed.

  • Wintermute

    Very good article.  I agree with your analysis but I disagree with your point concerning the value of a top WR.  My brief review of the last three years show that the very best QBs outdistance replacement level QBs more than any other position.  Second on the list is TE (believe it or not) followed by RB.  Your article and my brief historical review suggests that you can pass on Megatron but you cannot pass on Gronkowski/Graham and that you must get a top-top QB.  

    Thanks for the analysis! Good stuff.