How Often do Undrafted RBs/WRs Become Studs? (Fantasy Football)
In 2016 we saw a handful of players that went undrafted in fantasy leagues blow up the top of the fantasy leaderboards. Being someone who benefitted greatly from these players after injuries ruined my roster, I decided to look at how often these undrafted fantasy assets occurred to see if there were any trends. I reviewed the top 20 season-long running backs from each season between 2010-2016 to determine how many of those top 20 finishers were undrafted each year in fantasy leagues.
I used 20 as an arbitrary cut-off point, but I do feel that a top 20 finish represents someone who held value to your fantasy team to roster for a full season. Players that finish outside of the top 20 are typically either more high-variance players like Mike Wallace or consistent-but-weaker fantasy players like Cole Beasley. I understand that using season-long performance is limiting by nature, but analyzing more specific time frames (such as running backs that had “X” weekly finishes in the top “Y” at their position) would require much more time and resources than I currently have.
What I discovered was that over those seven seasons, 17 different wide receivers finished in the top 20 at their position after going undrafted in fantasy leagues, while only seven different running backs did so. That averages out to about one undrafted running back person season finishing in the top 20 at the position, and 2.42 wide receivers finishing in the top 20 each season.
Running Back Observations
The fact that there were more than twice as many wide receivers as running backs that fit this category came as a surprise to me considering that the running back position is typically considered more volatile and injury-prone than the wide receiver position. Since I was only looking at players that went entirely undrafted (per FantasyFootballCalculator.com), I think one way to explain this would be that running backs often have established and identifiable backups, and that in 12 team leagues (which FantasyFootballCalculator.com uses for its historical data), the obvious backups are drafted more often.
For the seven running backs that finished their season in the top 20, the most common reason these undrafted players had productive seasons was injury; at least four gained starting time when the primary back was hurt (like Jordan Howard), and the other three were in a committee to begin with. It is also worth noting that the best finish for any of these running backs was ninth overall (Justin Forsett in 2014), though like Jordan Howard last year or BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010, a few became great options following injuries to teammates.
The sample size here is relatively small, but it does seem to indicate that undrafted running backs rarely hit (for season-long purposes) for reasons other than injury. Matt Asiata finished as a low-end RB2 in 2014 during Adrian Peterson’s suspension when it was expected that Jerick McKinnon would be the starter, but other than that, each running back was given their opportunity due to injury.
This indicates to me that for running backs, fantasy analysts and drafters are usually pretty accurate when it comes to identifying the relevant season-long values. The pool of possible running backs each season is smaller than the pool of wide receivers, so it is easier to identify the range of outcomes at the position. The data I looked at left out players that may have had top 20 points per game but didn’t play enough games to finish as a top 20 player at their position.
For running backs, if the starter went down halfway through the season, the odds of either they or their replacement finishing in the top 20 would be greatly diminished. The replacement would still hold value in many cases, but wouldn’t appear in my study.
On a side note, the average ADP of a top 20 season-long fantasy running back from 2010-2016 was 21.26, and the median ADP was 15.5 (excluding the seven undrafted, ADP-less players). This demonstrates to me that in cases where the starting running back on a team stays healthy, we can predict their success with a reasonable amount of accuracy. 25.76 percent of seasonal top 20 finishers had ADPs outside of the top 30 at their position in fantasy drafts in that time span. For draft purposes, this means that on average 5.15 running backs that are drafted outside the top 30 at their position will finish in the top 20 each season.
Wide Receiver Observations
In the seven seasons between 2010 and 2016, there were 17 instances of a wide receiver that went undrafted in fantasy leagues finishing the season in the top 20 at the position. Based on these data, you are more than twice as likely to find a reliable weekly starter at the wide receiver position on your waiver wire in your fantasy seasons than you are a reliable, season-long asset at the running back position.
One possible explanation for this would be that there are more receivers in the NFL than there are running backs. While backup running backs are identifiable within a reasonable degree of certainty, wide receiver depth charts can often be more vague and unpredictable.
In addition, receivers can often take several years in the league before experiencing a breakout, whereas rookie running backs fire up in their first year or two in the league more often. On this list, just Keenan Allen, Odell Beckham Jr., and Jordan Matthews finished as top 20 wide receivers on the season as rookies.
Like running backs, receivers that finished in the top 20 at their position often did so due to injuries to their teammates, like Tyrell Williams in 2016. However, there were also more instances of a player experiencing a “breakout” that had less to do with injuries and more to do with vacancies, such as Doug Baldwin in 2015. What surprised me was how there were multiple instances of a player hanging around the league for multiple years, or even multiple contracts, before posting a top 20 finish, and then how often those receivers returned to anonymity.
Brandon Lloyd, Nate Washington, Laurent Robinson, James Jones, and Mike Williams (from Tampa Bay) each visited the top 20 just once in their careers, and had their top 20 finish after spending multiple years in the league. Keenan Allen, Jordan Matthews, Tyrell Williams, Terrelle Pryor, Tyreek Hill, and Davante Adams could all suffer the same fate.
Excluding the four receivers from 2016 featured in this list and the two receivers still in the league that have yet to crack the top 20 again (Allen and Matthews), five out of 11 failed to crack the top 20 a second time. Extrapolating that ratio onto the four receivers from last season along with Allen and Matthews means that there is a reasonable expectation that 45.45 percent of those receivers fail to crack the top 20 again.
On a tangent, the presence of three Green Bay wide receivers on this list stands out. The Giants were the only other team that produced more than one receiver to make this list (Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz). Randall Cobb reached the top 20 a second time, but James Jones returned to his part-time role after his top 20 season in 2012.
Given the similarities between Jones’ 2012 season where he produced a 64/784/14 stat line and Davante Adams’ 2016 where he produced a 75/997/12 line, we could see the same career arc for Adams that we saw for Jones. Jones was drafted as the WR28 the year following his top 20 performance, while Adams is currently being drafted as the WR17.
While the sample size wasn’t very large, we can still draw some conclusions from the data. Considering that top 20 wide receivers (in season-long value) are more than twice as likely to go undrafted in fantasy drafts than top 20 running backs, it would seem wise to roster more running backs than wide receivers during your drafts in redraft leagues, and to actively pursue wide receivers on the waiver wire. Running backs on your waiver wire are less likely to have season-long value than wide receivers that start your season on the waiver wire.
This study leaves out wide receivers and running backs that are drafted late and dropped early on in the season, but it does indicate to me that we should be especially watchful of any running backs drafted in the later rounds and dropped at the beginning of the season, like Jay Ajayi in 2016.