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Was a Wide Receiver Heavy Draft Strategy Effective in 2019? (2020 Fantasy Football)

by Sam Hoppen | @samhoppen | Featured Writer
Jun 29, 2020

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“Sometimes, you’ve got to go back to actually move forward.”

That’s what Matthew McConaughey tells us in his famous Lincoln commercials. In this case, we’re going back to the 2019 fantasy football draft season. Specifically, we’re going to examine if a draft strategy that emphasized wide receivers worked last year.

Year over year, we see many of the same names at the top of drafts when it comes to wide receivers. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that drafting them early always worked out. Additionally, it’s important to take stock of the performances of lower-tier receivers that made the leap into the upper echelon of pass-catchers.

In this article, you’ll find out what the 2019 season meant for those who implemented a draft strategy heavy on wide receivers. I will also use these lessons to provide a preview for the 2020 season.

All Average Draft Position (ADP) data comes from Fantasy Football Calculator using 12-team Half-PPR leagues.

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Boom or Bust

At the top of the wide receiver ADP, you either got steady production or absolute calamity. While the first round of 2019 drafts was dominated by running backs, picks nine through 26 overall (18 total picks) included 11 wide receivers. The top-10 wide receivers drafted are listed in the chart below.

Player Team WR ADP WR Finish WR PPG Finish Overall Difference PPG Difference
Davante Adams GB 1 24 6 -23 -5
DeAndre Hopkins HOU 2 5 5 -3 -3
Julio Jones ATL 3 3 4 0 -1
Michael Thomas NO 4 1 1 3 3
JuJu Smith-Schuster PIT 5 66 61 -61 -56
Odell Beckham Jr. CLE 6 26 34 -20 -28
Tyreek Hill KC 7 30 9 -23 -2
Mike Evans TB 8 12 3 -4 5
Antonio Brown NE 9 148 148 -139 -139
Adam Thielen MIN 10 61 43 -51 -33

Each of the top four wide receivers off the board — Adams, Hopkins, Jones, and Thomas — all finished in the top six for fantasy points per game. Obviously, Adams missed four games due to a toe injury, but he was near-elite in the games that he played.

On the flip side of this, five wide receivers drafted in the top-10 of the position finished at least 20 spots below where they were drafted. Smith-Schuster, Hill, Brown, and Thielen all finished significantly lower overall, as they all missed at least four games. Out of that quartet, Hill was the only one to finish in the top-10 in fantasy points per game among wide receivers.

Odell Beckham Jr. had one of his worst seasons despite playing in all 16 games. Last year was the first time that Beckham averaged fewer than 10 targets per game, six receptions per game, and 75 receiving yards per game in the games that he played. Granted, it was his first season with a new team, but many had higher expectations for the star receiver after he escaped New York.

Finally, Mike Evans (WR8 ADP) was finished worse in his overall wide receiver rank than in his points per game ranking. Evans finished as the 12th-ranked wide receiver overall, but he finished third on a points per game basis, even though he didn’t record a single point in a game he played in Week 5.

Overall Wide Receiver Landscape

To get a better sense of how the position looked overall, I removed Antonio Brown and A.J. Green from the ADP dataset. Obviously, if you had them on your team, they didn’t add much value to your roster. But their performances skew the data quite a bit and don’t totally reflect the position as a whole from last season.

Even so, the wide receiver position was a bit of a dartboard when it came to finding the right players in your drafts. Of the remaining 62 receivers that were drafted, 39 of them (63 percent) finished at least ten spots different than where they were drafted.

Furthermore, only 27 receivers (44 percent) finished higher among wide receivers than where he was drafted. This means that 34 (56 percent) finished lower than where he was drafted.

If you drafted a wide receiver in the fourth round of drafts last year, there was a pretty good chance that you finished with a mid-tier WR2. All but one of the seven receivers that were drafted in the fourth round last year (Brandin Cooks) finished among the top-17 wide receivers. In fact, three of them even finished among the top six wide receivers — a huge value for someone taken at this point in the draft.

Player Team WR ADP WR Overall Finish Difference
Brandin Cooks LAR 14 62 -48
Julian Edelman NE 15 10 5
Robert Woods LAR 16 17 -1
Chris Godwin TB 17 2 15
Tyler Lockett SEA 18 14 4
Cooper Kupp LAR 19 4 15
Kenny Golladay DET 20 6 14

Finally, the chart below demonstrates the variability of wide receiver finishes from 2019 and how they finished relative to where they were drafted.

ADP Average Difference in ADP vs. Overall WR Finish
Top-12 WR -17.1
Top-24 WR -12.6
Top-36 WR -9.7

While this chart makes it seem like wide receivers are extremely unreliable, it should also be noted that half of the wide receivers drafted in the top-12 also finished as a top-12 receiver on a points-per-game basis. Furthermore, 16 of the top 24 receivers drafted (67 percent) finished as top-24 receivers in points per game, and 23 of the top 36 wide receivers drafted (64 percent) finished in the top 36. This is to say that a couple of outlier receivers dragged down the overall difference for the position, while the majority of receivers finished in the relative range of where they were drafted.

2020 Outlook

Looking ahead to 2020, we see a similar story at the top of drafts, with running backs being the primary focus. However, a couple of receivers in Michael Thomas and Davante Adams have crept up a little higher than where the first two receivers were drafted last year, as they’re both being taken with top-eight overall picks.

Surprisingly, despite the proclivity for taking running backs in the early rounds of drafts, there are more wide receivers (25) being drafted than running backs (24) in the first five rounds. Many will tell you just how much depth there is at wide receiver this year, and I can’t argue with them.

That said, the 2020 fantasy wide receiver class is spread out quite thin. Only three rounds in the first ten rounds of drafts have more than four receivers currently being drafted in them. The biggest cluster comes in rounds four through six, where 19 receivers are being drafted out of 36 total picks.

You can certainly wait to take a receiver this year, but based on the consistency displayed by several players at the top, it may be worth zigging while everyone else zags.

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Sam Hoppen is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Sam, check out his archive and follow him @SamHoppen.

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