Dynasty, in Practice: Ageification, Youthification

A long-term look at aging patterns at running back and wide receiver, and a discussion of expectations going forward.

I wrote earlier about the streaky nature of true randomness, as well as our tendency to mistake those streaks for meaningful trends. I also provided examples I had written about in the past of such tendencies.

Today, I want to add one more example to that list. In dynasty, and especially in PPR leagues, you’ll often hear people today suggesting that owners should build around wide receivers. They’re more stable, predictable, and their careers last much longer; a team built around receivers will have years to address the running back position while chasing titles.

Indeed, prior to four months ago, that was my belief as well. But when I got around to actually running the numbers on that belief, my findings clearly shot it down. PPR scoring actually does a remarkable job at balancing running back and wide receiver value, historically.

It’s true that receivers have longer productive primes than backs. But running backs are historically more valuable from year-to-year, and that additional value is just enough to offset the longevity advantage.

So why is the dominant theory that teams should build around receivers? It’s largely explained by the receivers and running backs who have entered the league in the last six or so drafts.

Let’s dive into that a bit further. Here, I’ve taken the top 24 fantasy running backs top 36 fantasy wide receivers every season since 2000, and then I’ve taken their average age weighted by fantasy points, (so top performers contribute more to the average than fringe fantasy players). Here’s the year-by-year breakdown

YearAvg. RB AgeAvg. WR AgeDifference
2000 26.4 27.9 1.5
2001 26.5 28.0 1.5
2002 26.3 27.4 1.1
2003 26.1 27.4 1.3
2004 27.1 27.4 0.3
2005 26.4 28.6 1.8
2006 26.4 28.3 1.9
2007 25.8 27.7 1.9
2008 25.0 27.6 2.6
2009 25.6 27.2 1.6
2010 24.9 26.5 1.6
2011 25.9 26.6 1.7
2012 25.8 26.9 1.1
2013 26.5 26.6 0.1
2014 26.2 26.3 0.1
2015 26.4 25.8 -0.6

Looking at that table, it’s no wonder building around WRs is so popular right now; the average running back keeps getting older and the average wide receiver keeps getting younger. For the first time since at least 2000, (and likely far longer), the average fantasy-relevant wide receiver is actually younger than the average fantasy-relevant running back.

But is this a trend? Is the NFL moving towards younger wide receivers and older running backs? Or is this just the natural consequence of the stellar classes of incoming receivers drafted since 2010?

In 2010, the NFL gained Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Eric Decker. In 2011, it added Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and Randall Cobb. 2012 brought Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, and Josh Gordon, while 2013 produced DeAndre Hopkins. And, of course, the 2014 receiver draft class was arguably the greatest of all time at the position; Odell Beckham Jr Jr., Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Martavis Bryant, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, and Jarvis Landry are the standouts so far. 2015 looks like a weaker year, but Amari Cooper has been plenty impressive, at a minimum.

Who are the best running backs drafted over that span? Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley look like young stars, and DeMarco Murray has had a phenomenal career. DeVonta Freeman been looked tremendous this year, while Doug Martin, Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and Mark Ingram II have been up-and-down. Perhaps Lamar Miller or Latavius Murray will be a long-term fixture atop fantasy rankings going forward. David Johnson has played very well his last couple of games, (though again we must be wary of mistaking a streak for a trend). Either way, that’s a much less impressive list of incoming talent.

With fewer talented young players coming in to replace them, last generation’s stars like Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles, and Matt Forte have been able to hang around and continue to dominate fantasy leagues as they aged. Indeed, over the last five years, investments in receivers have been much more fundamentally sound than similar investments in running backs.

But again, is this a trend? Or is this just a random streak of consecutive “heads” flips? In 2008, the league looked to be trending in exactly the opposite direction, (aided substantially by the 2008 draft class, which was essentially the running back equivalent of the 2014 WR class).

There’s no doubt that right now, the preponderance of value in dynasty leagues lies at the WR position. The chart makes that clear. But this should not be mistaken for a belief that the wide receiver position is fundamentally more valuable than the running back position. And it certainly shouldn’t be taken as a cue to prioritize receivers over running backs in upcoming rookie drafts. Instead, we should focus on acquiring the best players, whether they be backs or receivers.

Random remains random. It's time we showed it that we're wise to its game.

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