Historically, fantasy draft classes have been mostly predictable each year since the industry experienced its first boom in the late 1980s. There has always been a consensus No. 1 pick and a rhythm to how fantasy owners select in the first few rounds.
This year, however, fantasy owners have not only bucked recent trends, but experts believe the industry is undergoing a shift in how traditional drafts will go in the years to come.
Welcome to the wide receiver era of fantasy football.
Over the past decade, the running back position has dominated the fantasy landscape -- so much so that the "two running back theory" had become no longer just a draft strategy, but widely considered the only competitive way to begin a draft. Few dared to stray from the formula because not having two quality running backs meant losing one's edge against the rest of the field.
But fantasy owners are starting to see more value in the wide receiver position at the top of the draft board, and feel a more pressing need to have an elite receiver than ever before.
Said Jay Clemons of SI.com, "I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself to get one of the top six, if not two, because I have so little confidence in the receiver position after that group." Clemens' top six includes (in order) Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Wayne and Greg Jennings.
The reason for the stronger push to have a top-flight receiver? Clemons believes the increased levels of passing in pro football have actually led to more evenly distributed productivity, thus weakening the depth at the position. "More people are catching two or three passes in games, and that doesn't help in fantasy," he said.
Emil Kadlec has operated in the fantasy industry for two decades. He publishes a number of print publications and operates FootballDiehards.com. He is also the co-founder of the World Championship of Fantasy Football, where he has studied drafting trends for the last several years.
He, too, has noticed a shift in drafting preference.
Said Kadlec, the increased demand on the receiver position has pushed quality running backs further into the draft than ever before. "There are a handful of players falling to the middle rounds this year that could end up being great No. 2 fantasy backs," said Kadlec. This week he was pleased to land Tampa Bay's Earnest Graham in the 11th round of his expert draft -- the fifth back he selected. "Here's a guy who is still listed at No. 1 on the team's depth chart, even though people assume (Derrick) Ward will win the job."
Kadlec can also relate to Clemons' way of thinking. Earlier in the summer Kadlec selected wide receivers with four of his first five picks in a PPR (points per reception) league. "I don't recall ever doing that before," he said.
Added Clemons, "It's not so much people are losing faith in running backs, they just know there is so much value deeper in the draft at running back. If you don't have an elite receiver you're already behind the curve heading into round two."
The top selection in a fantasy draft has usually offered a sense of comfort no other pick can. In the past, fantasy owners often won drafting from the top spot, and coveted having that opportunity. But on the eve of an upcoming PPR league, Clemons said he is nervous to be holding the pick, knowing that running back is probably still the way to go, but also knowing how much he fears not landing one of those top six receivers. Skip one of those six in round one this year, he said, and they won't be there when he drafts at the tail end of round two.
Greg Ambrosius is the founder of the National Fantasy Football Championship (recently acquired by FanBall.com). Like Kadlec, he has witnessed hundreds of live drafts, but Ambrosius said he can't quite remember another year when there was so much debate at the top of the board.
"It was always Marshall Faulk, it was always Emmitt (Smith), it was always Priest Holmes, and then it was always (LaDainian Tomlinson). He's been dominant the last four years where he was picked first in every draft," said Ambrosius.
This year, Ambrosius expects to see three players -- Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew -- all land in the top spot when the NFFC hosts its live drafts September 4-6.
"In years past everyone wanted the top pick ... everyone said you couldn't win without the top pick, and that's just not happening this year."
In fact, he said, "Very few people want No. 1. They just don't want that top guy. Many people would rather have No. 3 and let someone else make that decision."