This article was written by guest writer Dan Grano.
I have always wanted to check out the truism in fantasy football that WRs are too inconsistent, especially when compared to RBs. As this assumption goes, WRs can kill teams in head-to-head competition any given week by putting up a low score. RBs, on the other hand, are believed to be more consistent because they get more touches, and are (supposedly) in a less dependent position than WRs. Plus, stud RB theorists have always maintained, there are very few true "starting RBs" while good WRs are a dime a dozen.
Dynasty enthusiasts have typically valued WRs more than their redraft counterparts, especially because of their longevity and stability; once an elite WR establishes himself, he seems to have a better chance of holding his value than a RB, where injuries and turnover are high.
Have the stud RB theorists been right all along, though? Are WRs really that inconsistent? How do they stack up against top RBs from a consistency standpoint, and how does that affect drafting decisions in the early rounds? These are the questions I address. Let me give something away up front: nowhere am I going to advocate taking a WR over a RB in a given situation, or vice versa. What I am going to suggest is that they are more equal decisions, from a consistency standpoint, than the old WR-inconsistency truism would suggest.
In head-to-head leagues consistency is one of the most important concerns a drafter can have, and it is, I believe, the central decision-making factor when considering a RB vs. a WR. In this article, I make comparisons between RBs and WRs because 1) the long-held assumption that WRs are inconsistent has typically been understood in contrast to RBs and 2) because in the early rounds of many dynasty drafts, owners will be making tough calls between RB and WR assuming a typical set or flex lineup with point-per-reception (PPR) scoring. If you don't play in a PPR league then this article may be less relevant for you. If your league has any unique rules like starting 2 QBs, then you should still find the consistency comparisons here useful in making draft-day calls.
For most leagues, this article provides descriptive statistics in pursuit of one simple question: how should the facts on RB and WR consistency affect draft decisions in dynasty leagues? I have performed a study of RBs and WRs in the top 12 at their position from 2004 to 2007, so this study is most directly relevant to important decisions in the early rounds (elite RB vs. elite WR, 2nd tier RB vs. 1st tier WR, and so on). Throughout, I attempt to explain the meaning of the numbers within realistic drafting contexts, particularly in the earliest rounds.
Method, Cutoffs, etc.
My statistics are based on a scoring system that rewards 1 point/10 yards rushing or receiving (decimal scoring), 1 point/reception, and 6 points for all TDs.
Taking draft decisions in the early rounds as my focus, I decided to make my cutoff at the top 12 at RB and WR for each season. This is not a perfect choice, because near the bottom of that top 12 there are always going to be backup or late-starting WRs and RBs who make it because of an injury or some other unusual situation. But that is the case if you cut off at top 10 as well, and I wanted to get a large enough sample so that early-round decisions could be represented. At any rate, you'll have the individual breakdowns so you can assess how the numbers were arrived at in particular seasons or in particular players' cases. I didn't count injuries because they cannot be predicted. I measured consistency in games where players actually played. If they played 4 downs and got hurt, as long as they played in that game, their performance was counted. As best I could I assigned "did not play" (DNP) to players who missed games due to injury or other reasons; I used various online archives of game logs and weekly injury reports to re-assemble the record. I have provided numbers for weeks 1-16, as most fantasy leagues hold their Championship Games in week 16. I set a relatively low threshold for what counted as a "bad" game at less than 10 points. So, for the typical WR in a ppr this would be a day when he caught 4 balls for 55 yards or less; for most RBs, this would be a weak rushing/receiving day. Again, a different threshold would yield slightly different results, but you'll have the breakdowns if you want to check on even lower scores. I decided on 10 or less because among top 12 players - the subject of this article - that counts as a pretty mediocre to bad day.
Obviously the best anyone can do in an article about drafting strategies is offer player ranges as generalities. In comparing top 5 RBs vs. top 5 WRs and so on, we're talking about evaluations based on tiers, rankings, projections, average draft position, and the like, the stumbling and flawed guides of our hobby that are, as we learn around September every year, the best we can do.
I did the following comparisons: top 12 RBs vs. top 12 WRs within each season; top 5 RBs vs. top 5 WRs within each season; top 5 WRs vs. 6-12 RBs within each season; and 6-12 RBs vs. 6-12 WRs within each season.
Let me lay out the rationales for these comparisons:
- Top 12 RBs vs. top 12 WRs within each season: This is just to provide a general picture, one that, as I will suggest, is a bit too general to inform realistic drafting decisions. Thus, the need for further comparison breakdowns.
- Top 5 RBs to top 5 WRs within each season: This comparison is meant to show how the elite at each position perform as compared to one another in terms of consistency. I'll give this one away up front: the RBs mostly perform better. So, this comparison tells us what we already know: if you can get a top 5 RB, it's normally a good idea.
- Top 5 WRs to 6-12 RBs within each season: Here's the core comparison in this article. By comparing top 5 WR numbers to RB numbers 6-12 we can pinpoint that spot in, say, the mid-late 1st round (depending on league setup), where the truly elite RBs have been taken, and you're faced with a decision between a second tier back and a top WR. A similar decision may face you in the 2nd round, where that second or third tier of RBs is left, and there are still some elite WRs on the board. How do these guys compare to one another? RBs 6-12 are still in the RB1 range, so you have a real choice here. I wanted to see how the elite WRs measured up in terms of consistency.
- 6-12 RBs to 6-12 WRs within each season: This comparison gives us a basic sense of how deep the WR value goes in terms of consistency against RBs in the same range.
OK, so on to the charts.
RB/WR Consistency Comparisons Within Seasons
Summary: In 2004 the top 5 WRs compared pretty favorably to the top 5 RBs. But the RBs retained their value in the 6-12 range more than the WRs 6-12 when you look at total games under 10 points. When you look at the average number of games under 10, the top 5 WRs are about even with the RBs 6-12 (2.8 to 2.3), so a top WR would have been a decent option against the RBs 6-12 in 2004, depending on which guy you picked. But your chances of getting an inconsistent WR in the top 12 in 2004 would have been greater than at RB. So, all in all a better year for the RBs. The numbers from 2004 also suggest how important it may be to get a top 5 WR, since they were a clear notch above their peers in the 6-12 range, and about even with the RBs 6-12, making them a realistic alternative.
Summary: In 2005 consistency for RBs and WRs was more even. The top 5 WRs actually had one less game under 10 than the top 5 RBs, and the top 5 WRs clearly outperformed the RBs 6-12 (10 as opposed to 19 games under 10 pts). The RBs 6-12 were better than the WRs 6-12, so once you were in that second tier at both positions, a RB would have been a good pick. But in 2005 our central question - after the elite RBs how does a top 5 WR look as an option - was answered in favor of the WRs. These numbers suggest, perhaps, an even stronger case for the value of an elite WR; the top 5 WRs stayed even with or outperformed the RBs in both tiers, and they were a lot more consistent than the WRs 6-12.
Summary: Well, if you had LT, Jackson, LJ, Westbrook, or Gore in 2005 you were probably tap dancing on the fallen bodies of your enemies. One game below 10 in the top 5 RBs is fantastic. In a banner year for the elite RBs, the top 5 WRs had 15 games under 10 points to 1 for the RBs (shame on you, Frank Gore). But, a top 5 WR was a great choice against a RB in the 6-12 range (15 games below 10 vs. 27 games below 10). The WRs 6-12 also compared favorably against the RBs 6-12 (21 games under 10 vs. 27 games under 10). The RBs 6-12 did hold up well against the WRs in both tiers when looking at average games under 10 per player, so you could have done equally well taking a top 12 WR or a 6-12 RB in 2006, depending on the player you ended up with. But again, 2006 confirmed the value of a top 5 WR after the top 5 RBs were gone.
Summary: Ah, 2007, "The Year of the WR," the season when the zombie army of Stud RB theorists would finally get crushed under the weight of RBBC, and stud WR theorists would emerge from their parents' basements all over American to proclaim victory at last...until their next local league draft when the first 11 picks were RBs. The top 5 RBs and top 5 WRs compared very favorably to one another, just as in 2005 and (to some extent) 2004. Again, after the top 5 RBs were gone a top 5 WR was a great choice against a RB 6-12: 9 games below 10 points vs. 30 games below 10 points represented the greatest difference of any season between those tiers. Top 5 RBs remained very valuable in 2007 with only 6 games below 10 points (for an exceptional average of 1.2 games per player below 10 points). Top 5 WRs performed similarly well with an average of only 1.8 games under 10 per player.
The Bottom Line
What do the RB/WR comparisons mean for the early rounds of a dynasty draft?
In 2004, 2005, and 2007 the top 5 WRs compared pretty favorably to the top 5RBs, so an elite WR, at least from a consistency standpoint, is a viable choice even very early on in the first round. More to the central point of this article, from 2005-2007 a top 5 WR performed very well against a RB 6-12. So, for the most part, an elite WR (1-5) will perform as consistently or more consistently than a RB1 (especially a RB selected 6-12). In fact, the performance of the top 5 WRs as compared to RBs 6-12 and WRs 6-12 suggests just how important it may be to grab an elite wideout in your dynasty draft. If nothing else, this should make the folks who go RB/WR in dynasty startups feel like they've been on the right track, as they may be dipping into two pots of consistency gold.
The supply and demand argument as it pertains to RBs is still a consideration, and, like I said in the introduction, most of us understand that top 5 RB represents an awful lot of value. But outside of the very elite RBs, trends like RBBC may be, paradoxically, expanding the number of viable RBs for fantasy purposes.
Were all "bad games" created equally?
Basically, yes. RBs and WRs who scored less than 10 points averaged out pretty evenly. Here is a breakdown of the average for a game under 10 points, broken down by season and tier (by position):
I think the logical next step in a RB/WR dynasty study would be to look at consistency across seasons. If you consider a side-by-side comparison across the seasons I studied between the RBs and WRs you only get a snapshot in time. You pick up some players near the ends of their careers, and some at the beginning. Maybe a longer historical sample would provide some sense of how WRs hold their value as compared to RBs across their careers, or, how consistent their values are across a longer span of time. For now, I hope the within-season comparisons help you with some of the tougher early-round decisions in your next draft.