Todd Gurley and Antonio Brown seem like sure things to repeat as top-tier players, but that won't be the case for every high pick.
TG: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images, AB: Joe Sargent / Getty Images

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  • Examining the frequency with which the previous season's top running backs and wide receivers remain near the top of the leaderboards the next year.
By Stephen Andress
July 19, 2018

Every fantasy draft season the names at the top of drafts are mostly those who performed best the previous season. However, if our goal is to project forward, then why do so many managers blindly look backwards and put so much weight on the small sample size of the previous season?

We should be asking ourselves, “How often do the previous year’s top running backs and wide receivers repeat as such the following season?” That’s what I hoped to discover with this study.
Specifically, I wanted to nail down how often the previous season’s top-12 PPR RBs and WRs repeated as such the following year.

I was not sure what the data would show. What I found was that it was a mixed bag over the past six fantasy seasons, a period marked by a much larger emphasis on passing efficiency and broader use of spread offenses in the NFL. It was running back, though, where we observed the greatest change in year-to-year consistency last year from the previous two seasons.

Number of Top-12 RBs/WRs From Previous Season to Repeat
Year RBs WRs
2012 5 4
2013 4 7
2014 6 4
2015 2 4
2016 3 5
2017 5 4

The number of RB1s who repeated top-12 PPR production at the position last season—Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy, Mark Ingram, LeVeon Bell and Melvin Gordon—equaled the total that did so in the previous two seasons combined. What do these five RBs have in common? Elite volume. All five were in the top 12 at the position in touches per game. All but Ingram were also in the top 12 in touches per game in 2016. Elite volume equals high floors and high ceilings for running backs.

This data puts Leonard Fournette, third in touches per game last season, in prime position to repeat as a top-12 PPR RB, despite less use in the passing game then a typical RB1

The table above also shows that fewer than half of the RB1s and WR1s over the full six-year sample repeated the feat the next year. Over the past three years, only 10 out of 36 RB1s repeated, while 13 out of 36 WR1s repeated.

So which players could emerge to become top-12 scorers at their respective position?

Among backs, Dalvin Cook (seventh in touches per game, and on track to be an RB1 last year before tearing his ACL) and Jerick McKinnon (10th in touches per game) are prime candidates to emerge as top-12 PPR RBs. In later rounds, Lamar Miller (13th in touches per game) should not be overlooked.

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Wideouts who repeated as top-12 scoring PPR WRs last year were Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Thomas. Each ranked in the top 10 in targets per game. The first place to look for emerging top-12 WRs would be target-volume candidates. Outside of the obvious bounce back candidate like Odell Beckham Jr. and obvious repeat candidate Keenan Allen, Demaryius Thomas, who was 12th in targets per game last year, could re-emerge as a WR1. You can get my full breakdown of Thomas’ draft stock here. Additionally, Josh Gordon, who finished 13th in targets per game a season ago,  is another candidate. No matter if it’s Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield under center, he’ll be playing with a better quarterback, and there’s a strong possibility for negative second half game scripts with the Browns playing from behind.

High-End RB1s/WR1s vs. Low-End RB1s/WR1s

If we break down the top-12 PPR scoring leaders further, what do we find out about their year-to-year consistency? Something more curious:

Repeat Top-12 RBs/WRs, Broken Down by High End vs. Low End
Year RB1-RB6 WR1-WR6 RB7-RB12 WR7-WR12
2012 4 3 1 1
2013 2 6 2 1
2014 5 2 1 2
2015 1 3 1 1
2016 1 2 2 2
2017 3 2 2 2
Success Rate 44.4% 50% 25% 25%

Only 25% of backs in the RB7-RB12 tier and wideouts in the WR7-WR12 tier repeated as such the following season over the past six years. Those 2017 RBs were LeSean McCoy, Carlos Hyde, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Duke Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott. The 2017 WRs were Julio Jones, Tyreek Hill, Adam Thielen, A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. Considering many of these players carry expensive draft-day price tags, I prefer to avoid them, other than Fournette and Julio Jones for reasons mentioned above. Elliott still garners elite touches, as well, but given this data, I’ve tended to select Antonio Brown over him in drafts.

Do we find any draft values from last year’s RB1-RB6 and WR1-WR6 tiers, given their superior success rate of repeating as such over the past six years when compared with their low-end counterparts?

Each top-six RB from last year has a first-round ADP, except for Mark Ingram, which is understandable because of his four-game suspension. If you combine our projection of 178 PPR points for him divided by 12 games, you get 14.8 PPR points per game. Say you replace him with somebody like 11th-round pick James White for four weeks, whose projected 139 PPR points comes out to 8.7 PPR points per game. Add White’s projected production for four weeks on top of Ingram’s for 12, and you get you get 212.8 composite PPR points. That total puts inside of our top 36 overall in value-based drafting (VBD). If you can get Ingram in the fourth round, he’s still a value, given these projections and the much higher success rate of high-end RB1s providing a worthy encore than low-end RB1s.

Among the top six WRs from last year, four are being selected before the midway point of second rounds for obvious reasons: Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen and Michael Thomas. The other two high-end WR1s from last year were Jarvis Landry and Larry Fitzgerald. I detail here why the Landry fantasy party is over in Cleveland. I would not draft him at his fifth-round ADP. Fitzgerald at his fourth-round ADP, though? He’s a value with a projected VBD ranking in the top 30 overall, and a good bet to repeat given his target volume. Those looking to wait on a WR1 until after the second round should keep Fitzgerald in mind.

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Bottom Line

Low-end RB1s and low-end WR1s—RB7-RB12 and WR7-WR12 from the previous year—have a much higher chance of failing to repeat their production. Opt for emerging talents instead of expecting a repeat performance from this group.

Only two high-end WR1s repeated as a top-12 WR last year, and that appears to be an outlier. T.Y Hilton and Jordy Nelson lost their quarterbacks, while Odell Beckham missed the majority of the season after breaking his ankle. Confidence should be much higher in five of this year’s six returning high-end WR1s, with the lone exception being Jarvis Landry.

When looking for emerging RB1s, find those that have per-game volume similarities with established high-end RB1s, such as Saquon Barkley.

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