Every year, it seems like there’s one “in vogue” draft strategy that the majority of fantasy football owners blindly follow. I’ve explained why I think this is a bad idea and you should emphasize long-term position trends when drafting, but the truth is that there is no “best” draft strategy. You can travel down a number of different paths and still win a fantasy championship, so you should consider a vast array of factors to determine the best draft strategy for you given your circumstances.
One of the tricks I like to use to find the best overall value for my fantasy team is to consider where I can possibly find the biggest edge in my league. That involves studying starting requirements, scoring and draft slot, among other factors. In PPR leagues with a flex, for example, I generally rush to fill the flex with a wide receiver (it’s worth noting that your strategy must always be fluid; I recently kicked off a PPR/flex expert league with an RB-RB-RB start). In leagues that start two quarterbacks, I’m often on the late-round quarterback bandwagon just because I know others are going to be so bullish on passers as to inflate cost way too much.
There are potential weaknesses in player evaluation that we can exploit, too, the biggest of which I believe to be at wide receiver. While quarterbacks are incredibly consistent (and thus relatively easy to forecast) and running backs are binary (they either get a lot of touches and can produce for you, or they don’t), targeting the right types of wide receivers can potentially be really advantageous. That’s because wide receiver talent is more strongly correlated to production than at the running back position, but it’s not so consistent (as with quarterbacks) that everyone knows who will be good.
With that said, I’ve listed five characteristics I seek when targeting wide receivers in fantasy drafts.
A Heavy Workload
If you’ve read the analyses of the prototypical quarterback and the prototypical running back, you might be noticing a trend here. Opportunities matter.
While targets aren’t as important to receivers as carries are to running backs, there’s still a strong linear relationship here. Of the wide receivers to finish first at the position in the past four years, none had fewer than 150 targets. Of those to finish in the top 10, only three of 40 had fewer than 110 targets.
Target the Big Boys
I discussed the value of wide receiver size ad nauseam in a past article, so I’d suggest reading over that if you haven’t already. Below, I charted wide receiver (and tight end) red zone efficiency by weight.
Can small receivers be good in the red zone? Sure. But we’re not trying to identify exceptions to the rule; we’re trying to establish “the rules” and play the percentages to maximize our odds of winning fantasy leagues.
Touchdowns matter. They matter a lot. Size helps players score touchdowns. It helps a lot. Therefore, draft big wide receivers. A lot.
Oldie But a Goodie
If you recall from my prototypical running back analysis, running backs come into the NFL at near top efficiency and tend to peak around age 26 or so in terms of bulk fantasy points. After that, though, the decline is a steep one.
It’s a different story at the wide receiver position, where the decline in production is slower. Whereas running backs basically just fall off of a cliff and can go from an 1,880-yard, 27-touchdown season to an irrelevant fantasy option in a matter of a year (Hi Shaun Alexander!), wide receiver aging is a slower process.
Here’s typical wide receiver aging broken down by weight.
First, you can see that big wide receivers (220-plus pounds) outperform the small ones (sub-190 pounds) at every age. But big or small, wide receivers usually see a very slow decline from their peak, which is often in their late-20s. That makes predicting wide receiver production based on age fairly easy; it’s often a matter of projecting a small decline, whereas with running backs it’s more of “Okay, he’s either going to give me the same production as last year or just rush for 3.5 YPC and be out of the league in a year.”
A Strong Pedigree
If there’s one position at which college production predicts NFL success, it’s wide receiver. Bulk production matters, but the stat that really seems to be the most useful is market share—the percentage of his team’s total receiving stats for which a wide receiver accounts. If an offense throws 50 touchdowns and wide receiver X catches 15 of them, his msTD would be .30, or 30 percent.
Here’s a look at how college stats correlate to NFL touchdowns and approximate value.
While running backs are so dependent on their offensive lines for production that we can’t really assess them with too much accuracy (hence all of the late-round hits in the draft), wide receiver production, especially in terms of market share, matters when predicting NFL play.
Obviously we’re not concerned with college stats for veteran players, but when targeting rookies and even second or third-year receivers, look for those who were dominant in college.
An Explosive Offense
Finally, we always need to analyze players within the context of their offense. We can predict with a decent amount of accuracy which offenses are going to be among the best in a given year, and there’s a strong correlation between the quality of an offense and their wide receivers’ production.
Here’s a look at the typical number of offensive plays run inside the opponent’s 10-yard line for top 10 wide receivers, top 25 wide receivers, and all players at the position.
Yes, some receivers can score from 40 yards out on any given play, but such scores aren’t predictable. We want players who are going to have consistent access to reliable scoring opportunities, which means we need to target wide receivers who 1) frequently find themselves in the red zone and 2) convert those opportunities into touchdowns.