There are many roster construction strategies that exist in dynasty football, and it is hard to argue than any one is more fool-proof than another.  You have ‘zero-RB’ strategies, those that stack up strong receivers and complement with satellite backs, those that refuse to put a premium on the quarterback position (assuming a non-Superflex league), and those that want to own the top assets at that position (i.e. Pat Mahomes or Lamar Jackson).  I am not here to argue that any one strategy is far superior to others, as there are a bevy of ways to win in fantasy football.  However, I am here to provide some considerations that using premium picks in startup drafts or ‘paying up’ for a top running back or two can be more beneficial for your roster construction than loading up on the top receivers.

What’s ADP Tell Us?

When looking at recent ADP data from DLF startup mock drafts that occurred in January, seven running backs went off the board in the first eight picks.  Obviously, drafters are zeroing in on those top-end running backs early. But if they have such a short shelf-life compared to a wide receiver, why take the shorter-term asset? 

The View is Different When You Are At the Top

I looked at the top-12 PPR scorers since 2016 at both the running back and wide receiver positions. This created a sample size of 48 players each.  The findings show the reason why most drafters are probably favoring the top running backs at the beginning of drafts over the ‘elite’ wide receivers such as Michael Thomas, Deandre Hopkins, Davante Adams, etc.  Since 2016, the difference between the top-scoring RB and the 12th highest scoring RB was an average of 12 points per game.  That is a remarkable gap, when you consider guys like Philip Lindsey and Devin Singletary were averaging about 12 points per game alone in 2019, with names such as Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb averaging 12 points per game in their 2018 seasons.  So, by starting a low-end RB1 compared to the top-scoring running back, you are essentially operating at a deficit each week equal to leaving your RB2/Flex spot open.  Now looking at the same data but for wide receivers, the gap is much smaller.  Since 2016, the difference between the top-scoring wide receiver and the 12th highest scoring receiver was an average of 5.7 points per game.  While 5.7 points isn’t negligible, it is not near as significant as the RB gap we saw earlier. 

2016-2019 Data

#1 Running Back Total Points (avg)#12 Running Back Total Points (avg)Avg Differential Between RB1 & RB12
41222012 ppg
#1 Wide Receiver Total Points (avg)#12 Wide Receiver Total Points (avg)Avg Differential Between WR1 & WR12
3312405.7 ppg

And What About Those in the Middle?

Although the top-scoring player at a position and the 12th highest scorer both represent WR1 or RB1 players (assuming a 12-team league, of course), those are the two furthest extremes.  If we instead just look at the difference between a ‘high-end’ WR1 or RB1 (which I will define as a top-3 scorer at the position), a mid-range WR1/RB1 (those that finish 4-6), and a low-end WR1/RB1 (those finishing 7-12), we can further see the differences between those three tiers.  For running backs, those that finish 1-3 on the season average 22.6 ppg.  The mid-range tier averages 18.7, and the low-end RB’s average 15 ppg.  For WR’s, the top-three at the position average 19.5 ppg, the next three 17.6, and then the bottom tier 15.8.  Another way of looking at this – a low-end running back will return about 66% of the production of a high-end RB, and for WR’s those low-end WR1’s return about 81% of the production of the top-three.  Moving even further away from the high-end group, we see RB2’s on average produce about half of the points per game as a top-3 RB option, while at wide receiver those that finished 13-24th still on average provide about 2/3 of the production of the three best receivers.

High-End RB (1-3)Mid-Range RB (4-6)Low-End RB (7-12RB2’s (13-24)
Avg PPG22.618.71512.2
Avg % of Production of ‘High End’83%66%54%
 High-End (1-3) WR Avg PPGMid-Range (4-6) WR Avg PPGLow-End (7-12) WR Avg PPGWR2’s (13-24)
Avg PPG19.517.615.813.1
Avg % of Production of ‘High-End’–  90%81%  67%  

Open For Business

Using this data, the conclusion I draw is that while running backs have a shorter shelf life, I still prefer to prioritize the top producers as they provide you with a great advantage at that position.  While wide receivers do typically have a longer prime, the drop-off from the cream of the crop to the rest of the WR1’s is marginal, especially compared to the drop-off you see from the top few running backs to those that finish 4th-12th at that position.  With this information, I am looking at teams where I have a stud wide receiver or two and maybe a few fringe RB1/RB2 type players. I am trying to shop the wide receiver for a young, talented running back that I think could produce a top-6 season a couple of times.  Predicting who those running backs will be exactly is difficult, but you have a good idea of what players will be in the running for that distinction: Christian McCaffery, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, and even Josh Jacobs are names of players that I could envision finishing as at least a mid-range running back, and perhaps even a high-end.  Even if I trade a top wide receiver for one of these guys straight up, I only need them to return a top-6 season to still provide about as many points per game as the best receivers each season. I would then try to load up on wide receivers that are more in the WR2 range that will still be able to provide me nearly as many points each week on average as a low-end RB1. That being said, let the shopping begin!