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Draft RB or WR in the First Round? That Question Is Far From Simple for Fantasy Football Owners

It's often the hardest question a fantasy football owner faces in the entire draft: What position do I draft in Round 1? And the changing dynamics of NFL offenses makes it trickier than ever to determine the right answer.

A fantasy football draft is really just a series of questions, answered rapid-fire as you take your turn on the clock. Do I prefer this player or that one? What will happen between now and my next pick? Which players can I wait on, and for how long? Come up with enough right answers, and you’ll have the foundation of a championship team. Make the wrong choices, and to overcome them you’ll have to work that waiver wire all season long.

Perhaps the toughest questions that fantasy owners wrestle with every year involve the ranking of positions. Do I take a wide receiver now? And if I do, will all the good running backs be gone later? This dilemma is complicated by the changing nature of NFL offenses. The priorities that worked for you a few seasons ago might prove incorrect in 2018. For many years running backs were the top prizes, but as rule changes and offensive schemes have pushed NFL teams toward a more pass-happy approach, fantasy owners have asked themselves if they should spend that precious first-round pick on a wideout. In 2016, Antonio Brown climbed to the top of draft boards, becoming the first wide receiver to be the consensus top pick since the days when Jerry Rice, owner of every major career receiving record, was at the peak of his powers.

But the idea of giving receivers that high a priority has faded as quickly as it arose. With all due respect to Occam and his razor, the reason isn’t as simple as you think.

For the last two seasons running backs have been the dominant force in fantasy football. In 2017 six running backs outscored the No. 1 wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. A year earlier the top-scoring WR, Jordy Nelson, put up fewer points than eight RBs. Because of this recent history running backs have retaken their spot at the top of the draft this season.

But the balance of power between the two positions has not been settled entirely. (Oh, were it that simple!) Look at the results from last year and you’ll see that from the second to the fifth rounds, receivers are better bets than backs.

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Using average draft position as a guide, a typical third round last year included wide receivers Hopkins, Doug Baldwin and T.Y. Hilton. Hopkins was a true league-winner. Baldwin finished 14th at the position, delivering value on his ADP. Hilton was a bit of a bust, but that was mainly because his quarterback, Andrew Luck, missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. Receivers frequently taken in the fourth round included not only disappointments Terrelle Pryor and Demaryius Thomas, but also excellent value picks Keenan Allen (ranked third among WRs in both standard and PPR leagues), Alshon Jeffery (18th, 23rd), Tyreek Hill (fourth, 9th) and Davante Adams (12th, 13th).

The running back position, meanwhile, was pockmarked with far more busts outside the first round. Three backs who delivered strong returns—Todd Gurley, Jordan Howard and Leonard Fournette—all went between pick Nos. 16 and 25 on average, and Kareem Hunt rode his fourth-round ADP to a superstar season. But the other backs frequently taken in the second through fifth rounds read like a list of last season’s biggest misses: Jay Ajayi, DeMarco Murray, Christian McCaffrey, Lamar Miller, Marshawn Lynch, Isaiah Crowell, Ty Montgomery, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, Doug Martin, Ameer Abdullah, Mike Gillislee, Belial Powell and Adrian Peterson all disappointed relative to draft position. Mark Ingram, a legitimate star, was also taken in this range, as were Carlos Hyde and C.J. Anderson, who performed to expectation. So among the 21 backs chosen in rounds 2 through 5, five were unbridled successes, two didn’t disappoint and the remaining 14 were huge letdowns. In short, once the elite backs were off the board, the risk at that position escalated more quickly than it did for receivers.

In fantasy, here’s the crucial truth to remember: Yards are yards and touchdowns are touchdowns, whether they come through the air or on the ground. One hundred receiving yards get you the same amount of points as 100 rushing yards, and a touchdown is worth six points regardless of how it is scored. With this in mind, fantasy owners should focus on stat accumulators rather than a specific position. Elite backs such as Gurley and Le’Veon Bell should go first, because as great as top WRs such as Brown, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. are, they simply don’t get the same volume of opportunities to rack up yards and touchdowns. But once you get past the topflight rushers, the decision to take Brown over, say, Melvin Gordon, is a relatively easy one. The same goes for the likes of Beckham and Hopkins over backs Fournette and Alvin Kamara. Make sure you get stats first, then worry about filling out positions later—especially with the explosion of flex spots in typical fantasy leagues.

In fact, the more flex positions your league has, the more outdated the concern about positions becomes. In nearly every fantasy league you’re going to have to start at least two running backs and two receivers. More likely, you’ll need a combination of six backs and receivers for your starting lineup every week. You can reliably find receivers worthy of being starters in rounds 3 through 5. You want your stable of running backs to be made up of either 1. sure things or 2. players whose ADPs are low enough that they won’t hurt your bottom line if they fail to pan out.

What about other offensive positions? While you can go after a superior tight end in those early rounds (read: Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce) savvy fantasy players know that most TEs, and all quarterbacks, should be taken later.

So an ideal pattern would be to get a first-rate back early, focus on receivers with your next few picks, and return to running backs when the price of doing business—in other words, overcoming a bust—is no longer prohibitive. But really, the best approach is to acquire the most prolific stat accumulators, regardless of their position, early in a draft, and take care of positional requirements later. The true answer to the RB/WR question that has vexed fantasy owners in recent years turns out to be a liberating question: Who cares?