The NFL is as pass-happy as ever, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the first round of a fantasy football draft
The value of running backs is constantly being mitigated in the NFL, and it’s steadily falling.
Teams electing to reward their rookie running backs with extensions often have to pay just to get them off their books. And the teams that spend high-end draft capital on running backs are criticized for doing so in an increasingly pass-dominant league. Front offices would often be better off searching for replacement-level running backs at a fraction of the cost. The 2020 season showed the blueprint to do so.
Wide receivers’ value, though, is rising.
Teams are quick to throw money at wide receivers and use high draft picks in search of the team’s next great pass catcher. This offseason showed that several free-agent receivers signed huge deals, and three receivers were selected in the top 10 of April’s draft. It’s even spilling over to the tight end position–two have been drafted in the top 10 over the last three years
A recent trend shows fantasy football managers are waiting longer to draft wide receivers, instead loading up on running backs earlier than in recent years and breaking with prevailing logic at the NFL level. The days of the zero RB strategy seem to be fading into ancient history. We’re knee-deep in a robust RB strategy boom.
The wide receiver with the highest average draft position (ADP) early on this offseason is the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill. He’s certainly worthy of the distinction, finishing the 2020 season as the WR2. Having breakneck speed and the NFL’s best passer in Patrick Mahomes throwing to him doesn’t hurt, either.
But Hill’s current ADP is 10, four spots lower than the highest-drafted wide receiver in 2020, Michael Thomas. The Saints’ star receiver, who set an NFL record in 2019 with 149 catches, was also drafted lower than the top receiver from the year before. DeAndre Hopkins, then with the Texans, had an ADP of 5 in 2019.
Antonio Brown was fantasy football’s top-drafted receiver from 2015-2018. His ADP fell for three consecutive years, starting in 2016.
Brown, the former Steelers receiver who’s now with the Buccaneers, peaked in 2016 as the consensus No. 1 pick, a rare honor for a receiver.
After that peak came a wide receiver ADP valley that we’re still experiencing.
Packers star Davante Adams might have broken the trend this season if it weren’t for the uncertainty around the future of his quarterback and league MVP Aaron Rodgers. Adams caught a league-leading 18 touchdowns and was the No. 1 fantasy wide receiver despite playing just 14 games. His ADP is 11.
If Hill’s ADP holds, he would be the lowest-drafted first receiver off the board in at least the last 10 years.
Running backs make up the bulk of first-round picks in any year, but the top eight ADPs belong to running backs this season. Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce interrupts that streak at No 9. If his position holds, it would be the highest ADP for a tight end since Jimmy Graham in 2014.
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey’s ADP is 1 for the second year in a row. He’s followed, in order, by the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook, the Saints’ Alvin Kamara, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley, the Titans’ Derrick Henry, the Colts’ Jonathan Taylor, the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliot, and the Browns’ Nick Chubb.
The number of running backs selected in the first round of 12-team drafts has stayed relatively stable in the last few years. There were lows of just six first-round ADPs for running backs in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017. But in the last four years, the number of running backs with first-round ADPs has been nine or more.
What’s changed is when and how often receivers are being selected in the first round. As the ADP of the first wide receiver drafted fell from 2017 on, so did the number of receivers with top-12 ADPs.
In each of the last three drafts, only two receivers have first-round ADPs in each draft. In 2019, it was Hopkins and Adams. In 2020, it was Thomas and Adams. And in 2021, so far, it’s Hill and Adams representing receivers in the top 12 picks. Elite running backs are simply more scarce and you’ve got to get them early!
With that in mind, running backs are increasingly dominating the top of drafts, and fantasy owners are opting to wait longer before selecting receivers. They’re employing the NFL’s running back logic to the wide receiver position by spending later in a draft for similar production—and it’s working.
In the NFL draft and a fantasy draft, the goal is to extract the most value from each draft selection. The difference is, in fantasy football, running backs still reign supreme, now more than ever.
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