The Death of the WR1 (Fantasy Football)
I remember back to my first years in fantasy football. Way back in the mid-00s when running backs ruled the world. Before the years of advanced strategies and before zero RB even existed. You just went RB-RB because that’s just what you did. Obviously, not everyone could do this, but if you could, you did. I never did. I looked back through all of my old drafts. Ironically, the first time I ever went RB-RB was in 2013 when I took Matt Forte and Alfred Morris from the 11 spot. Early on, I would always take a WR with one of my first two picks. In a sense, I was ahead of the curve.
Sometime around 2010, give or take a year, the early-round WR started to gain steam. And before we could blink, the value of the WR had equaled, if not surpassed that of RBs…or so we thought. The WR boom of 2014 still resonates with fantasy owners to this day. It was in 2014 that the WR takeover began. Then, 2015 happened. 2015 was one of the worst years in modern RB history for fantasy purposes. So in 2016, WRs dominated the early rounds like never before. But the value of the RB never diminished. 2015 was just an anomalously poor year for RBs. The 2016 rebound should have been obvious and, in hindsight, it was.
The fantasy community as a whole is generally a year late on reacting to change. 2017 was indicative of that. Heading into this year, the focus should have been on RBs again. It wasn’t. Half of the top 24 picks were WRs (and Rob Gronkowski). And once again, RBs proved their dominance. I’ve spent a lot of words discussing RBs in an article about WRs. In 2018, we could be looking at a first round dominated by RBs more heavily than anything we’ve seen in over 10 years. The reason? The death of the WR1.
WRs in 2017 Hit Many All-Time Lows
Let’s start with the simplest of analyses – PPR Fantasy points per game.
From 2008-2016, WR scoring increased every single year. In 2008, WRs averaged 30.12 ppg. By 2014, that number was up to 34.49 ppg. In 2015, it went to 34.65 ppg. In 2016, it hit its peak in 34.98 ppg. In 2017, not only did the number drop, but it completely fell off a cliff. Last season, WRs scored 31.15 ppg, the lowest since 2008. To put that in perspective using total points, that’s almost 2,000 fewer fantasy points than 2016. Receptions, yards, touchdowns – they were all down.
In 2017, Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins were the only WRs to average more than 20 ppg. In 2016, only AB broke the 20-point threshold, but three WRs were over 19 ppg. In 2015 and 2014, five WRs averaged over 20 ppg. The real problem for 2017 was the gap between the elite WR1s and the lower WR1s. AB led the league with 22.2 ppg. DHop was next at 20.7 ppg. If you had either of those two, you had a serious competitive advantage at the WR position. Michael Crabtree was the last WR1 at 14.0 ppg. To put that in perspective, here’s where 14.0 ppg would’ve landed a WR in each of the previous three seasons: 2016 – WR19, 2015 – WR27, 2014 – WR21. In past years, this year’s final WR1 would’ve been a lower-end WR2 or even a WR3. As you’ll see in a bit, WR production was, in fact, down across the board, but the problem for fantasy owners was the failure of their WR1s to actually be WR1s.
Just because you roster a WR that posted a top-12 finish doesn’t necessarily make him worthy of being a WR1. The entire theory behind the early-WR draft strategy is that your WRs would not only outproduce the RBs you could be taking, but they’d be significantly better than the WRs your opponents are drafting in the later rounds. Aside from the fact that in 2017 only four of the predraft WR1s actually finished as WR1s, even if you found one of the emergent WR1s later on, your advantage wasn’t as big as it should’ve been.
Three WR1s finished averaging exactly 15.9 ppg (Tyreek Hill, Julio Jones, and Davante Adams). As they were your WRs 6-8 on the season, we’ll use them as the benchmark given that they were mid WR1s. They gave you a 3.4 ppg advantage on the guys on the WR2/3 borderline (Nelson Agholor, Demaryius Thomas, JuJu Smith-Schuster). Let’s compare that advantage to previous years.
Difference between mid WR1 and first WR3
2017: 3.4 ppg
2016: 4.0 ppg
2015: 5.0 ppg
2014: 5.6 ppg
For four seasons, the advantage in having a first-round WR has been decreasing. In 2017, the WR6 was farther away from the overall WR1 (6.3 ppg) than he was from the WR45 (6.2 ppg difference). Obviously, I specifically selected the WR45 to illustrate the disparity, but it’s not cherrypicking data – it’s showcasing how little the WR1 designation mattered this season outside of the top two guys. Here’s how far down the WR ranks you had to go to reach the 6.3 ppg disparity from the overall WR1.
2015: WR9 (*Actually WR13, but four WR1s did not reach double-digit games played)
As the data shows, the drop off from the elite talent happened quickly in 2017. In 2017, the WR6 was closer to the WR45 than he was to the WR1. This was the biggest problem for WRs in 2017. There was no WR1. You had Brown and Hopkins doing typical WR1 things. Then, where you should’ve had a few more elite options, you had the next few WR1s putting up numbers that would have been mid-to-high WR2s in most other seasons. The final WR2 in 2014 averaged 13.6 ppg. In 2015, 13.8 ppg. In 2016, 13.1 ppg. In 2017, 12.5 ppg. While WR2 production was down as well, it wasn’t nearly as much as WR1 production. In 2017, WR2s were mostly WR2s, albeit on the lower end of the typical numbers. Meanwhile, WR1s were mostly also WR2s.
Essentially, we had AB, DHop, and then about 20 WR2s, give or take a handful. This prevented anyone from having a weekly advantage at the position because so many players were essentially the same.
Larger Historical Analysis
Back in old NFL – the 00s – the reason for poor WR production was largely due to lack of volume. WR1s have always performed at an elite level. 2016 was the highest-scoring WR season of all time, but WR1s only totaled 3,224 fantasy points, which is actually the third fewest from 2007-2016. The difference in the modern NFL is with the increase in passing attempts as a whole, teams are producing more fantasy-viable WRs. The WR scoring is propped up by WR2s, WR3s, and even WR4s. As an example, way back in 2007, the WR1 tier scored 3,539 fantasy points, the third highest total of the timeframe. However, the WR3s only scored 2,109 points, the third lowest from 2007-2016.
2017 would have been a bad year just based on the WR1s. Unfortunately, there was a trickle-down effect. The WR1s totaled 3,085 fantasy points, an 11-year low. The WR2s totaled 2,420 fantasy points, an 11-year low. The WR3s totaled 2,009 fantasy points, which was – you guessed it – an 11-year low.
So what happened? Was it an increase in RB production? Well…no. RB1 production has been relatively consistent over the past 11 years with the exception of the absurdly low 2015. RB2 production was actually the third lowest in the last 11 years. WR routes run and targets were down this year from the past few years, but still nowhere near as low as they were in the late 00s. RBs ran more routes as WRs this season than at any point in NFL history. 3.2% of total routes run by RBs were as WRs. The next highest was 2.5% in 2015. RBs also saw 21.2% of the total targets this season, which is the highest percentage of the last 11 years. That could explain some of it.
After the unprecedented RB decline of 2015, I approached 2016 intent upon getting an early-round RB due to the decrease in perceived value of RBs as a whole. It is still quite early, but I project a whopping 10 RBs to go in the first round of 2018 drafts. I believe the only WR locks for the first round are Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins as they were the only WR1s to actually perform like elite WR1s. I still think early pick RB is the way to go, but if you pick at the back end of the first round and including your second and third round picks, you could find tremendous value at WR.
Putting it simply, the WR position has no choice but to rebound in 2018. To what extent remains to be seen. Regardless, it is a near certainty that there will be first-round caliber WRs sitting there in the second and maybe even third rounds. Fantasy owners could find themselves in a position to extract considerable value in obtaining first-round talent at the WR position without having to pay full price. This poses an even bigger opportunity in auction leagues where you will likely be able to construct a WR corps you never thought possible. 2018 might even be the time to go zero RB. The coming months will reveal much more about the 2018 fantasy landscape. For now, I hope you realize how bad WRs truly were in 2017 and approach the 2018 offseason with a clear mind prepared to combat the always difficult to resist recency bias.