Free: Where Have All the WRs Gone?
Originally published February 27, Where Have All the WRs Gone is part of our Memorial Day look at the best of RotoViz.
2017 was a rough season for fantasy wide receivers and could be indicative of a downward trend for the position. Only two WRs eclipsed 300 fantasy points. While this isn’t a major change from three in 2016, it is significant when compared to the average of six recorded between 2013 and 2015. Further, only seven WRs surpassed 250 points in 2017; eight did so in 2016. Between 2013 and 2015, an average of 13 WRs accomplished this feat.
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This has made it increasingly difficult for owners building their teams around the position to be successful. With the pool of high-scoring receivers shrinking by nearly 50 percent in the last two seasons, it’s become a challenge to rely solely on building volume at WR. Picking the “right” guys, which we know to be a difficult task, has become paramount. Of course, we’re dealing with a short time frame so it’s hard to say that these results are actually indicative of a trend that will carry into 2018. Nonetheless, we’ll certainly hear a number of conflicting arguments about the merits of Zero RB and other WR-focused approaches in the coming months. Let’s ground ourselves with some data to have a context in which we can consider these arguments.
A major reason for the low point totals recorded by WRs in 2017 was a decrease in touchdowns. WRs combined for just 435 receiving TDs last season. This is a significant drop from the 482 posted by the position in 2013. It’s especially low when you consider that WRs produced 485 TDs in 2014, a whopping 519 in 2015, and 501 in 2016. Unfortunately, the drop was absorbed across the position and wasn’t concentrated to lower-level receivers.
If we split the population of receivers from each season into four buckets, based upon team targets, we can see that 2017 resulted in an ordinary TD distribution. For the purposes of this article, WR1 refers to players that were the most-targeted WRs on their teams. WR2 refers to players that received the second-highest target totals, and WR3 refers to players that received the third-highest target totals among WRs on their teams. All other WRs are included in the WR4+ grouping.
Between 2013 and 2016, WR1s accounted for 42 percent of all receiving TDs recorded by WRs. In 2017, this cohort was responsible for 41 percent. Similarly, WR2s recorded 28 percent of all TDs between 2013 and 2016, whereas, 27 percent of all TDs were scored by WR2s last season. In 2017, WR3s accounted for 18 percent of WR scores. This was equivalent to the percentage recorded by WR3s in the four seasons prior. All other WRs accounted for 14 percent in 2017, an increase of one percent from the prior four-year average.
Where Did These Touchdowns Go?
We’ve established that WR TD scoring was down across the position, but did these TDs go elsewhere? In the four seasons between 2013 and 2016, an average of 810 passing TDs were recorded, with the highest total of 842 posted in 2015. Only 741 TDs passes were thrown in 2017. So passing TDs were down across the league as a whole and not concentrated to WRs alone. The below table outlines the percentage of passing TDs that each position was responsible for in the last five seasons.
WRs were not adversely affected by their TDs going to other positions. Ultimately, passing TDs were just down in 2017 and reached their lowest levels since 2010. Though this may feel problematic for the position, it’s important to note that these levels are still positive when considering the past 15 seasons. The TD explosion witnessed between 2013 and 2016 makes the total from last season feel more apocalyptic than it actually is.
Like TDs, WR targets dipped in 2017, and this certainly impacted the position’s ability to produce high-scoring players. Only 12 WRs saw more than 125 targets last season, a drop of 45 percent from the average of 22 recorded in the four seasons prior. Similarly, only 27 WRs were targeted 100 or more times, a drop of 29 percent from the average of 38 recorded in the four seasons prior.
|50 +||75 +||100 +||125 +|
Total WR targets saw a significant drop. Between 2013 and 2015, receivers saw nearly 10,600 targets per season. Over 10,900 WR targets were posted in 2016, yet only 9,914 were thrown last season. While you may be inclined to assume that WR3s and WR4s, have seen increasing percentages of looks, this hasn’t been the case since 2013. Rather, the allocation of targets between the buckets outlined above remained relatively flat.1
As we know, targets are in many ways the lifeblood of fantasy scoring for WRs. But were targets down at running back and tight end? No and yes. RBs saw the highest volume of targets of the last five season in 2017, whereas, TEs recorded their lowest total. While it’s tempting to identify RBs as the plague of the 2017 WR, I don’t believe this to be the case.
In 2017, RBs saw approximately 200 more targets than the average recorded between 2013 and 2016. This is significant, but it doesn’t fully explain the chasm of 600 or so targets identified above. Furthermore, the pickup at RB was offset by a decrease of around 160 targets at TE. WR targets were down in 2017, but their balance didn’t fully shift to other positions.
|RB Targets||% of Total||TE Targets||% of Total|
As one would expect, reception results closely mirror those of targets. With fewer passes thrown their way, smaller numbers of WRs were able to surpass reception thresholds. In turn, this deprecated the utility of WRs in PPR leagues and naturally impacted their ability to accrue yardage.
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Between 2013 and 2016, WRs recorded an average of 81,094 combined yards per season. In 2017, the total dipped to just 75,070 yards, a decrease of 7.5 percent when compared to the average. However, WR yardage has not been trending downward. In fact, WRs produced 81,508 yards in 2013 and built upon this total year over year. In 2016, WR yardage peaked at 83,504.
In 2017, significant decreases in the number of players surpassing reception, yardage, and TD thresholds were seen.
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Though we have been focusing on the last five seasons, a look through a wider lens illustrates that 2017 was one that is not indicative of a trend.
The Red Zone
Before drawing any final conclusions, let’s take a quick look at some red zone data (unfortunately, I only have red zone data going back to 2015).
Red zone targets for WRs, as a percentage of total targets, remained between 11 and 12 percent between 2015 and 2017. Naturally, as general targets fell, so did red zone targets. As a percentage of total red zone attempts (rushing and passing attempts), WR targets remained between 20 and 21 percent. During this time period, RB rushing attempts equated to seven percent of total red zone attempts each season. RB targets increased from 28 percent in 2015 to 30 percent in 2018.
In terms of red zone TDs, it’s worth noting that WR receiving TDs decreased from 37 percent of all red zone TDs in 2015 to 33 percent in 2017.
|Total RZ TD||RB Rush TD||RB Rec TD||RB Total TD||WR Rec TD|
It’s true that 2016 and 2017 did not go as well as WR zealots would have hoped for. However, all hope is not lost. The league remains one that is focused on the pass, and WRs amassed an insane amount of yardage just two seasons ago. Though overall passing volume was down in 2017, it seems unlikely that this will become a trend.
The distribution of targets, TDs, and yardage across individual team’s WR1s, WR2s, etc., remained relatively flat. Further, the percentage of league-wide passing attempts and TDs that WRs accounted for in 2017 was in line with the levels recorded between 2013 and 2016. While the red zone TD data is a cause for concern, it is likely year-to-year variance and does not appear to be indicative of a seismic shift in the way that NFL offenses are operating.
RBs and TEs are not stealing fantasy production at the alarming rates that you may have assumed or been told. Ultimately, the drop in league-wide passing attempts and the decrease in the number of high-scoring WRs in 2016 and 2017 makes the situation seem more dire than it likely is. If WRs continue to lose their share of red zone TDs, it will be hard for the position to maintain it’s level of high scoring players. However, given the above data, it doesn’t seem that this threat is imminent.
At the very least, it seems more probable than not that WRs will generate similar production in 2018.
- The fluctuations illustrated in the graph are all less than 4 percent. (back)