The Misconception about Wide Receivers
Everyone who regularly talks about fantasy football has heard the following; "The NFL has become a passing league, so you need a stud QB," and "This season is extremely deep at the Wide Receiver position." Those two statements make logical sense when read in that order, and anyone following football would naturally put the two together. If the NFL has become a passing league, then it should be easier to find value at the wide receiver position. That is certainly not the case.
It is absolutely true that NFL teams pass the ball far more than they did a decade ago, but this has not lead to increased success amongst wide receivers. An explanation of how this data was compiled is provided at the bottom of the post. Here are a few statistics that should have you rethinking your WR draft classes.
In 2011, when there were more passing plays and more passing yards per game in any season in the history of football there were 17 wide receivers with over 1,000 receiving yards. That is the third lowest value in the 11 seasons I surveyed, with only 2003 (14 1,000-yard receivers) and 2010 (16 1,000 yard receivers) falling below that mark. In fact, you have to go back to 1993 and 1994 to find two consecutive seasons with under 20 1,000 yard receivers. From 1995-2010 there were at least 20 receivers with 1,000 receiving yards every other season. Saying that this season is deep at receiver has no statistical basis, since "deep" typically refers to a large number of receivers with above average numbers. This does not seem to be the case.
Perhaps you are wondering whether there are a disproportionately high number of nearly 1,000 yard receivers in the last few years. Surely those passing yards must have gone somewhere in 2011, and big name receivers like Percy Harvin and Greg Jennings just missed having 1,000 yard seasons in 2011. Alas, this is not the case either. I decided to take the total yards amongst the top 50 receivers in the NFL by yardage, since it is extremely unlikely that you would carry a player on your team outside of the top-50. This did not yield better results for the class of 2011, whose total was 47,557 yards compared to an 11-year average of 47,264. The average top-50 receiver had approximately 5.9 yards more than the average receiver over that time.
We have now ruled out the possibility of higher passing yards leading to a higher number of 1,000 yard receivers and the idea that higher passing yards leads to higher receiving yards by receivers. The wide receivers of 2011 did woefully in terms of receptions; grabbing only 3,223 balls compared to the 11-year average of 3,388 receptions. On the other hand, they did excel (to the slightest degree) in one category: Touchdown Passes. That's right, the top-50 wide receivers of 2011 caught 4 more touchdown passes than the average group of 50 wide receivers over the last 11 years (306 TD receptions vs 11-year average of 302).
This data points to only one conclusion; an explosion in passing yards and passing touchdowns actually has almost no effect on the quality of fantasy wide receivers. This comes as a major shock, since it is extremely logical to take the increase in passing yards to mean an increase in wide receiver production. Perhaps our misconception lies in evolution of the passing game. Analysts and fans harp about the easing of rules that disallow contact against wide receivers, but that seems to have very little impact on wide receiver production. Instead, offensive coordinators have started to utilize tight ends and running backs more heavily in the passing game. Furthermore, teams are turning to 3, 4, or 5-wide sets with quarterbacks who feel equally confident in any receiver to catch the ball. This trend has a huge impact on fantasy, as the production and value of tight ends seems to be increasing far more than wide receivers. Additionally, running backs still have value because of the number of times they catch the ball out of the backfield.
Finally, this means that you, the fantasy enthusiast, need to comb through your list of receivers and pick out the best ones. The success of wide receivers is notoriously difficult to predict, so it is still fine to load up on wide receivers at the end of the draft (in fact, it is imperative to success), but feel free to pick your favorites and ignore everyone else (including me). There will only be 15-25 wide receivers with 1,000 or more yards (within the 90% confidence interval, at least), even though there will probably be 60-120 drafted in your fantasy league (depending on size and settings). Make the right choices for you and pay attention to the waiver wire. A few of those 1,000 yard receivers are likely to be undrafted (see: Cruz, Victor; 2011).
This post was created using the NFL.com statistics for wide receivers by position. The numbers used do not include running backs or tight ends, and only the top-50 wide receivers by yardage are used. The stats were put into a spreadsheet and the total receptions, touchdowns, and yards were calculated by summing the lists. If you would like to see the data in its raw form, feel free to contact me.