By JUSTIN DADE (@jcdfantasy)
Photo credit goes to FOX Sports.
For years and years it has always seemed that there has been one draft strategy that has dominated the world of fantasy football: obtaining top running backs.
The running back position has been the most important piece of a fantasy roster for as long as most can remember, simply due to the fact that there –- generally -- can only be one starting running back on every NFL franchise. Not all teams have good running backs, and not every team uses a three-down back, leading to fewer than a dozen “elite” players that are coveted early in drafts every season.
To prove the idea that running backs have been the most valuable players in fantasy football in recent memory, let’s look at past ESPN fantasy football final preseason ranks. From 2005-2015, the top five overall players ranked by ESPN were all running backs -- except for one year. That one exception came in 2012, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers received a top-five overall ranking. In order to succeed during these years, you needed to have dominant running backs to have a chance to win.
Fast forward now to the new age of the NFL -- a league where the passing game dominates. In 2015, 26 receivers recorded 1,000-yard seasons. In 2010, only 17 receivers accomplished that feat. The new era of the NFL has evolved from a league of pounding the rock to win games to slinging it in in the air more than 30 times every outing.
In an article written by Michael Fabiano of NFL.com, he reported that teams threw the football a whopping 59.1 percent of the time in 2015, which is the highest percentage since 1995. If that was not proof enough of the change, teams also only ran the football 26.3 times per game, which is the lowest total since 1932.
With the NFL going under drastic changes in offensive philosophies, the fantasy football community has been noticing some changes as well.
In 2015, 26 receivers recorded 1,000-yard seasons. In 2010, only 17 receivers accomplished that feat.
For the first time in fantasy football history, four of the first top five overall rated players according to ESPN are wide receivers in standard formats. Le’Veon Bell is the one running back in the top-five preseason rankings, joining wideouts Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins. Those four elite receivers scored a total of 901 fantasy points in standard formats and an impressive 1,435 in PPR formats.
With the explosion of the passing game, it’s no longer about finding elite running backs to win fantasy football titles. Now, it is about obtaining the most wide receiver talent. Currently, 12 of the top 20 overall fantasy football rankings on ESPN are pass catchers (Rob Gronkowski included as a tight end).
One of the greatest luxuries in owning elite wide receivers is, simply, their consistency. For example, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones scored 15 or more fantasy points in ESPN standard formats seven times last season while failing to eclipse 10 points only five times.
Elite wide receivers are almost unstoppable in today’s league with their dominant ball skills and the NFL rules that limit defenders. And unlike for running backs, when NFL teams get behind, receivers become even more valuable because teams need to score points as fast as possible through the air. For these reasons, it is pretty rare to see elite wide receivers score fewer than 10 points, especially if you play in any type of PPR format.
The more and more that we see the NFL develop these elite receiver and quarterback talents, the more and more we are going to see the RB-RB draft strategy fade in favor of a potential WR-WR draft strategy in the first two rounds.
Noticing this change in the fantasy football dynamic faster than your competitors will give you an edge that just might earn you a title in 2016.