When drafting in the early rounds of your fantasy football drafts, often times the decision comes down between choosing running backs and wide receivers. There is a common perception that "wide receivers are safer" and so by going that route, you would be dimishing the risk you take onto your roster. We weren't so sure that was the case and so we set out to examine the volatility of both positions by reviewing the production of early-round players at both of those positions since 2010.
Note: For each year, we have listed the running backs and receivers with average draft positions (or ADPs) of 36 or less for standard scoring, which indicates the player was chosen, on average, within the first three rounds of a standard 12-team league. Green font was used to indicate the ranking of players who finished among the top-12 at their position, which would be indicative of RB1 production, while red font was used to indicate the ranking of players who finished outside the top-24, which would be indicative of RB3 or worse production. Historical ADP data was compiled from MyFantasyLeague.com.
|Adrian Peterson||2.54||15||3||Andre Johnson||8.52||13||9|
|Chris Johnson||3.40||16||5||Randy Moss||15.35||16||67|
|Maurice Jones-Drew||4.86||14||12||Reggie Wayne||17.56||16||7|
|Ray Rice||5.59||16||11||Larry Fitzgerald||19.49||16||16|
|Frank Gore||7.35||11||20||Calvin Johnson||20.44||16||6|
|Michael Turner||8.51||16||9||Miles Austin||21.50||16||12|
|Steven Jackson||13.62||16||14||Roddy White||23.04||16||3|
|Rashard Mendenhall||17.02||16||7||Brandon Marshall||25.80||14||28|
|DeAngelo Williams||17.44||6||63||Greg Jennings||27.43||16||4|
|Ryan Mathews||18.64||12||32||DeSean Jackson||28.41||14||14|
|Ryan Grant||21.98||1||123||Marques Colston||31.00||15||19|
*Final Positional Ranking in total Fantasy Points
In 2010, there were 15 running backs and 11 wide receivers with ADPs of 36 or less. Each of the first eight backs finished among the top-24 at their position, with six of those eight finishing among the top-12. The second portion of the running back contingent was not as productive; injuries were rampant and held four of them to 12 games or less, three of which were limited to six or less games. Shonn Greene was the only listed running back to play in more than 12 games and still finish outside the top-24 at the position. The wide receivers displayed a much lesser risk of injury, averaging more than 15 games a piece. The only two receivers to finish outisde of the top-24 of their position were Randy Moss and Brandon Marshall. Each of those receivers played at least 14 games, but still under-produced. Moss' undoing was all his own as he spent the season on three different NFL teams, while Marshall suffered from poor surroundings, specifically the quarterback play from Chad Henne. Overall, 2010 was a year in which running backs exhibited a higher degree of risk, which indicated wide receivers as the safer options. Notably, the underperforming running back's seasons was moreso due to injuries, while the receivers underperformed due to other factors.
|Adrian Peterson||1.94||12||8||Andre Johnson||11.35||7||71|
|Arian Foster||3.63||13||4||Calvin Johnson||15.01||16||1|
|Chris Johnson||5.22||16||16||Roddy White||16.49||16||8|
|Ray Rice||5.55||16||1||Larry Fitzgerald||19.95||16||5|
|Jamaal Charles||5.98||2||97||Greg Jennings||23.44||13||18|
|LeSean McCoy||9.43||15||2||Hakeem Nicks||24.57||15||12|
|Rashard Mendenhall||11.87||15||19||Vincent Jackson||26.49||16||10|
|Maurice Jones-Drew||13.03||16||3||Mike Wallace||29.19||16||9|
|Michael Turner||16.89||16||6||DeSean Jackson||31.10||15||27|
|Darren McFadden||17.15||7||34||Miles Austin||33.78||10||42|
|Frank Gore||20.54||16||13||Reggie Wayne||35.14||16||29|
*FINAL POSITIONAL RANKING IN TOTAL FANTASY POINTS
In 2011, there were a total of 15 running backs and 11 wide receivers with ADPs of 36 or less - the same totals as 2010. Four of the 11 running backs finished outside of the top-24 at their position. LeGarrette Blount was the only back to play in more than 12 games and still finish outside top-24. The other three backs to finish outside the top-24 were affected by injuries that limited them to 10 or less games played. Among the 11 wide receivers, there were also four players who finished outside the top-24 at their position and of those players, DeSean Jackson and Reggie Wayne each played more than 12 games. Jackson's lack of production can likely be attributed to a combination of erratic quarterback play and opportunity, while Wayne's disappointing season is much easier to place on the shoulders of his battery mates, which was a rotation of Curtis Painter, Kerry Collins and Dan Orlovsky. All in all, the running backs exhibited less risk than wide receivers. Even though the backs still missed more games on average and outnumbered the receivers selected, they averaged a higher final positional ranking.
|Arian Foster||2.47||16||2||Calvin Johnson||7.45||16||1|
|Ray Rice||4.09||16||6||Larry Fitzgerald||20.40||16||42|
|LeSean McCoy||4.99||12||21||Andre Johnson||22.71||16||8|
|Chris Johnson||9.32||16||12||Julio Jones||23.17||16||9|
|Darren McFadden||11.96||12||28||Wes Welker||28.39||16||12|
|Matt Forte||14.26||15||13||Greg Jennings||28.80||8||74|
|Maurice Jones-Drew||17.90||6||52||A.J. Green||30.63||16||4|
|DeMarco Murray||19.05||10||26||Roddy White||31.35||16||10|
|Adrian Peterson||20.30||16||1||Victor Cruz||32.71||16||13|
|Marshawn Lynch||22.77||16||4||Jordy Nelson||34.63||12||30|
|Jamaal Charles||24.35||16||8||Brandon Marshall||35.38||16||2|
*FINAL POSITIONAL RANKING IN TOTAL FANTASY POINTS
In 2012, there were a total of 16 running backs and 11 wide receivers with ADPs of 36 or less - one more running back than the previous two years. Five of the 16 runnings backs finished outside of the top-24 at their position, while three of the 11 wide receivers finished outside of the top-24 at their position. Once again, the wide receivers averaged more games played, proving to be less susceptible to injuries. Every back to play in more than 12 games finished inside top-24, while one receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, played in more than 12 games and still finished outside of top-24. Fitzgerald was troubled by four issues during that campaign: John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer. For the second straight season, even though the backs missed more games on average and outnumbered the receivers selected, they still averaged a higher final positional ranking.
|Adrian Peterson||1.76||14||6||Calvin Johnson||9.49||14||3|
|Doug Martin||4.62||6||55||A.J. Green||17.88||16||4|
|Arian Foster||5.23||8||44||Dez Bryant||18.19||16||5|
|Marshawn Lynch||8.17||16||4||Julio Jones||22.08||5||64|
|Jamaal Charles||8.23||15||1||Brandon Marshall||23.89||16||6|
|Ray Rice||8.80||15||30||Demaryius Thomas||24.91||16||2|
|C.J. Spiller||9.76||15||27||Larry Fitzgerald||30.36||16||16|
|LeSean McCoy||10.87||16||2||Andre Johnson||32.07||16||12|
|Trent Richardson||11.00||16||34||Randall Cobb||34.25||6||61|
|Alfred Morris||14.13||16||14||Roddy White||34.52||13||52|
*FINAL POSITIONAL RANKING IN TOTAL FANTASY POINTS
In 2013, there were 19 running backs and 10 wide receivers with ADPs of 36 or less. The increase in running backs selected in the early rounds can likely be attributed to the "you must go running back early" notion that swept across the fantasy football scene prior to last season. Drafting early round running backs resembled that of a minefield in 2013; eight of the 19 running backs, including six of top-12 backs, finished outside of top-24 at their position. In comparison, three of the 10 wide receivers finished outside of the top-24 at their position. There were four running backs that played in more than 12 games, but still finished outside the top-24 at their position: Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson, and Stevan Ridley. Only one reciever, Roddy White, played in more than 12 games, but finished outside the top-24 among wide receivers. Surprisingly, even though the number of running backs was nearly double that of wide receivers, their average final positional rankings were virtually equal. The receivers also averaged less games played than running backs for the first time in this sample.
|Running Backs||Wide Receivers|
|Running Backs Drafted||16.25||Wide Receivers Drafted||10.75|
|Average Draft Position||16.82||Average Draft Position||24.38|
|Games Played||13.32||Games Played||14.47|
|Final Positional Rank||21.89||Final Positional Rank||19.70|
|Missed Games||2.68||Missed Games||1.53|
Throughout those four seasons, 22 of the 65 RBs finished outside the top 24 at position, which equates to 33.8%. 16 of those 22 backs, or 72.7%, played in 12 or less games, which indicates their lack of production can largely be attributed to injury. In comparison, 12 of the 43 WRs finished outside the top 24 at position, which equates to 27.9%. Of those receivers, six or 50% of them played in 12 or less games.
While running backs may be more susceptible to injuries, they produced at a higher level than wide receivers when healthy. Roughly two-thirds (67.7%) of the backs played in 14 or more games; those players had an average final positional ranking of 11.70. In comparison, 77.2% recievers played in 14 or more games; those players those players had an average final positional ranking of 12.53.
Wide receivers are more dependent on the play of others than running backs and so the fact that a higher percentage of them struggled to perform even when healthy is not entirely surprising. Specifically, receivers rely on their quarterbacks to not only play at a high-level, but also to provide them with opportunities, or targets. Limiting early round receivers to those with prolific quarterbacks may be a rule that would reduce some risk, but another intrinsic risk of receivers is that their production may also suffer greatly by an injury to their quarterback, which would be in addition to an injury of their own.
Heading into any draft, you should have an elastic plan and be able to adjust, not setting in stone that either a running back or wide receiver will be your next pick. However, it helps to know the trends and depth of each position. After a 2013 season in which wide receivers, Josh Gordon among many others, torched opposing defenses and fantasy football teams, the position should be expected to garner more respect in fantasy drafts. As a result, the upwards trend of early round running backs should halt or even regress.
Unless the starting requirements of fantasy rosters are adjusted to account for the current positional depth, with only 32 starting positions open for running backs and even less of those starters being featured backs, the depth of viable fantasy options at the position will remain much thinner than that of wide receivers. Waiting too long for running backs may leave your roster with a void that is tough to fill during the season.
The data outlined above also eliminates the idea of receivers being the less volatile option, which was a major driving factor for building your team around receivers. After all, the runnings backs sampled even provided a better return on your investment, as evidence of their final positional ranking more closely resembling their ADP (relative to their own position) by a sizable margin. With an average of 16.25 running backs selected each year among the top-36 picks, they averaged a final positional rank that was 5.64 spots worse than their positional ADP. The average of 10.75 wide receivers that were also selected in that range had an average final positional rank that was 8.95 spots worse than their positional ADP.
With all that being said, we are not recommending that you select a borderline RB1, such as Zac Stacy, over an elite WR1, à la Demaryius Thomas, on account of their positions. Again, you shouldn't pin yourselves into any strategy and be able to adjust to each draft. However, the running back position should remain a priority and regression in the number of early round running backs would make a running back heavy strategy more effective than last year as better running backs would fall further down fantasy football draft boards in 2014.
You can find me on Twitter, @KyleWachtel, where I’d be happy to answer any of your questions.