When building a draft strategy, most people are going to study the final totals and rankings from the previous season. Novice fantasy players will rely on these numbers to a fault but the more seasoned understands positional value. They know that leagues are won by running backs and wide receivers. Since most leagues allow 3 or more of both positions into the starting lineup, the decision comes down to which position should be drafted first. I have studied recent history and I will make the case for the runner.
It is vital to make good on the first three or four picks in the draft. Just like in the NFL, teams that draft poorly early on will miss out on the most talented players and have to watch other teams perform with those players. Owners need to get the most value for their picks, and that means obtaining the players who will score the highest above the mean at their position.
Over the past five seasons, the top-scoring running back has scored at least 117 PPR fantasy points more than the 12th ranked runner. The other position group that occupies the top-10 players in all rankings I have seen is wide receiver. In the same timeframe, the distance between the top wide receiver and the 12th ranked receiver has been as close as 40 points. The average separation for running backs was 152.44 points compared to only 81.88 points between the 1st and 12th ranked WR. All this means it is very important to land an elite running back if you want to win your league. This may not come as a surprise to anyone but even with the elevated risk of injury, it would be wise to nab a running back that you like early on.
In studying the ADP of the top 12 RBs and WRs over the past 5 seasons, only last year did the ADP of the top 12 WRs end up higher than that of the RBs. The anomaly that was 2016 included Jordan Howard, who went undrafted in most leagues, and the 18 rushing TD explosion by LeGarrette Blount that nobody saw coming.
Another reason to wait on receivers is a simple fact that the NFL has become a passing league. In 2015, the league average for pass attempts per game was a whopping 34.63 per contest. That number rose to 35.83 in 2016. The average amount of rushing attempts per team for those two seasons came out to 25.21 and 25.50 respectively. With several teams employing “3rd down” and “change of pace” running backs, an individual runner does not get near the opportunities their predecessors received. That does not mean that you should be afraid to pull the trigger on RBs, but rather that it is very important to find a talented back that can remain on the field for 3 downs.
Obtaining a quality running back or two is often what will propel your fantasy team into the playoffs. There simply are not enough great ones to be had and the few that find them reap the benefits. I am a firm believer that quality pass-catchers can be found throughout the draft but that is far from the case with RBs. There were 24 WRs who scored at least 200 points in PPR last year. Only 14 RBs hit that mark.
I say all this not to say that you need to draft RBs with 3 of your first 4 picks. What I mean is you need to do your research and figure out the 2-4 runners you think are in the best position to succeed. Look at their offensive line, team philosophy, schedule, and weather patterns. Find the players that will get the most opportunities and go all in. You need to draft quality, not quantity. NFL.com posted the top 10 NFL players who were on the most fantasy league-winning rosters in 2016. There were 6 running backs on that list and only 2 wide receivers. So go find that stud runner and take home the trophy!