The value of running backs is constantly being mitigated in the NFL and is steadily falling.
Teams that choose to reward their rookie runners with extensions often have to pay just to get them off their books. And teams that spend high-end draft capital on running backs are criticized for doing so in an increasingly passing-dominant league. Front office offices would often be better off looking for replacement tier brokers at a fraction of the cost. The 2020 season showed the plan to do it.
However, the value of wide receivers is increasing.
Teams are quick to throw money at wide receivers and use top picks in the draft in search of the team’s next great pass receiver. This offseason showed several free agent receivers signed big contracts and three receivers were selected in the top 10 in the April draft. He’s even spreading to tight end: Two have been selected in the top 10 in the last three years.
A recent trend shows that fantasy football managers are waiting longer to recruit wide receivers, rather than loading back with running backs earlier than in recent years and breaking with the prevailing logic at the NFL level. The days of zero RB strategy seem to be fading into ancient history. We are knee deep in a solid RB strategic boom.
The wide receiver with the tallest average draft position (ADP) at the start of this offseason is Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs. It is certainly worthy of the distinction, ending the 2020 season as the WR2. Having breakneck speed and the best passer in the NFL in Patrick Mahomes doesn’t hurt either.
But Hill’s current ADP is 10, four points lower than the Wide Receiver with Highest Recruitment in 2020, Michael Thomas. The Saints’ star wide receiver, who set a 2019 NFL record with 149 receptions, was also selected lower than the previous year’s top receiver. DeAndre Hopkins, then with the Texans, had a ADP of 5 in 2019.
Antonio Brown was the top receiver in fantasy football between 2015 and 2018. His ADP fell for three years in a row, starting at 2016.
Brown, the former Steelers wide receiver now with the Buccaneers, peaked in 2016 as the first consensus pick, a rare honor for a receiver.
After that peak came a wide receptor ADP valley that we are still experiencing.
Packers star Davante Adams could have broken the trend this season were it not for the uncertainty about the future of his quarterback and league MVP Aaron Rodgers. Adams caught 18 league-leading touchdowns and was the number one fantasy wide receiver despite playing just 14 games. His ADP is 11.
If Hill’s ADP holds, he would be the first receiver off the board with the lowest draft in at least the last 10 years.
Running backs make up the majority of the first-round picks in any given 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, he 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. They are followed, in order, by Dalvin Cook of the Vikings, Alvin Kamara of the Saints, Saquon Barkley of the Giants, Derrick Henry of the Titans, Jonathan Taylor of the Colts, Ezekiel Elliot of the Cowboys and Nick Chubb of the Browns.
The number of riders selected in the first round of the 12-team draws has remained relatively stable in recent years. There were lows of only six first-round ADPs for runners in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017. But in the last four years, the number of runners with first-round ADPs has been nine or more.
What has changed is when and how often receivers are selected in the first round. As the ADP of the first wide receiver selected fell from 2017, so did the number of receivers with the 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 who represent the receivers in the top 12 picks. Elite racers are simply scarcer and you have to get them early!
With that in mind, running backs increasingly dominate the top of drafts, and fantasy owners are choosing to wait longer before selecting receivers. They’re employing NFL running back logic for the wide receiver position by spending later on a draft for a similar production, and it’s working.
In the NFL draft and in a fantasy draft, the goal is to extract the most value from each draft pick. The difference is that, in fantasy football, running backs still reign, now more than ever.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.