Running Back or Wide Receiver: Who Should You Target Early?

Friday, Aug 18, 2023 at 10:24 am ET

Justin JeffersonI've long been a proponent that running backs are gold in fantasy football, and good ones don't just fall out of the sky (as opposed to real life, where useful running backs seem to appear out of nowhere). This year, there seems to be a consensus that Justin Jefferson is the top player in fantasy football, and wide receivers are ranked in the top 10, 20, 30 etc. at a higher rate than running backs in both standard and PPR rankings, according to Fantasy Nerds. Am I wrong about my hoarding of running backs, and should I change with the times to target receivers higher?

I looked at the last three seasons of fantasy points for running backs and wide receivers, to see who scored higher at the top and, more importantly, how quickly fantasy points declined over both positions. There are a lot of numbers involved here, but I'm going to try to keep it as simple as possible, and I'll make sure to hit key points if you decide to skip over the tables.

For those brave enough, let's run down what the tables represent. In both standard and PPR scoring for receivers and backs from 2020-2022, I started with the average of the top 10 players at the position. From there, the average of the next 10 players was taken against the previous 10 to find the percentage of total points lost as I went down the rankings. For example: the top 10 wide receivers in standard scoring last season averaged 199.2 points. The players ranked 11-20th at the position averaged 147.4 points. From the top 10 to the next 10 there was a 26% drop in total points scored. The 21-30th players averaged 121.7 points, a 17.4% drop from the 11-20 average.

2022 Wide Receivers Running Backs
Standard PPR Standard PPR
Average of top 10 199.2 points 289.8 points 238.3 points 291.2 points
% drop to 11-20 avg 26.0% 20.9% 28.2% 26.2%
% drop to 21-30 avg 17.4% 15.3% 18.6% 20.0%
% drop to 31-40 avg 10.1% 11.1% 17.2% 18.8%
% drop to 41-50 avg 15.2% 11.1% 28.9% 27.0%
2021 Wide Receivers Running Backs
Standard PPR Standard PPR
Average of top 10 212.2 points 313.7 points 226.8 points 277.1 points
% drop to 11-20 avg 28.2% 22.9% 24.7% 24.6%
% drop to 21-30 avg 12.3% 13.7% 20.2% 17.9%
% drop to 31-40 avg 17.4% 18.0% 23.6% 20.6%
% drop to 41-50 avg 12.3% 14.1% 14.6% 14.6%

2020 Wide Receivers Running Backs
Standard PPR Standard PPR
Average of top 10 196.3 points 291.3 points 231.5 points 275 points
% drop to 11-20 avg 22.7% 18.8% 32.2% 28.9%
% drop to 21-30 avg 12.6% 12.3% 15.8% 14.2%
% drop to 31-40 avg 11.8% 12.6% 19.5% 20.9%
% drop to 41-50 avg 11.6% 12.7% 20.3% 20.5%

In every instance except one, running backs declined in points at a higher rate than receivers. This means that running backs lose fantasy points faster than wideouts as your draft goes deeper. A few things that stand out:

  • This proves me right about grabbing running backs earlier than receivers!! Well, kind of. There are more receivers who can make an impact. At least two wideouts are considered starters, and many teams run more snaps with their third receiver than without him. One running back is usually the most that can stand out on a team, as a second back takes away from the top option. It makes sense that points fall faster with less backs making an impact on the stat sheet.
  • The one time receivers declined faster than backs was from the top 10 to the 11-20th receivers in 2021 in standard scoring. Two players helped account for this, Cooper Kupp and Deebo Samuel. Kupp was putting up historic numbers, hauling in the second-most receptions and the second-most yards in a season ever and scoring 16 touchdowns. Samuel had over 1,400 receiving yards but added 365 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. These two inflate the average of the top group, but things balance out after that blip.
  • The biggest drop most times at both positions is from the top 10 players to the next 10. Those top players are so important in determining winners of fantasy championships, so take extra care with your top two or three picks. Have a plan, but don't draft a player you don't love early because things don't go how you expect.
  • The further down the list you go, the faster running backs lose their value compared to receivers. Wide receivers 20 through 50 are going to produce noticeably higher numbers compared to the top players than the running backs ranked in the same spot.

Impact on 2023

Preseason rankings don't hold throughout the season, so identifying the players who are primed to break out is vital, along with the luck of your players staying healthy. While knowing the future is impossible, rankings give an idea of who experts generally expect to have the best seasons. The top 10 players at these positions are going to matter more than anyone else, so let's look at who they are according to Fantasy Nerds standard rankings, which are correct as of 8/17/2023:

Rank Wide Receivers Running Backs
1. Justin Jefferson (#1 overall) Christian McCaffrey (#2 overall)
2. Ja'Marr Chase (#3) Nick Chubb (#4)
3. Cooper Kupp (#8) Austin Ekeler (#6)
4. Tyreek Hill (#9) Derrick Henry (#7)
5. Stefon Diggs (#12) Bijan Robinson (#10)
6. A.J. Brown (#13) Saquon Barkley (#11)
7. CeeDee Lamb (#15) Jonathan Taylor (#14)
8. Davante Adams (#16) Tony Pollard (#17)
9. Jaylen Waddle (#19) Josh Jacobs (#18)
10. Garrett Wilson (#20) Najee Harris (#25)

Every player ranked in the top 20 overal is on these lists except for Travis Kelce (#5 overall). Harris is the one who falls out, and only to 25 as Amon-Ra St. Brown and three quarterbacks make up #21-24. The average overall ranking of the wide receivers is 11.6, almost even with the running backs at 11.4. Here's the next 10 players at each position and their overall rank:

Rank Wide Receivers Running Backs
11. Amon-Ra St. Brown (#21) Travis Etienne (#27)
12. Tee Higgins (#26) Joe Mixon (#32)
13. Chris Olave (#28) Rhamondre Stevenson (#33)
14. DeVonta Smith (#30) Dameon Pierce (#34)
15. Deebo Samuel (#31) Kenneth Walker (#37)
16. Amari Cooper (#35) Aaron Jones (#38)
17. DK Metcalf (#36) Breece Hall (#40)
18. Calvin Ridley (#39) Miles Sanders (#41)
19. Jerry Jeudy (#44) Jahmyr Gibbs (#42)
20. Christian Watson (#45) Alexander Mattison (#46)

The backs will not have a higher average ranking again, and the chasm will only grow. The average overall rank of the receivers here is 33.4 and for the running backs 37. There are still great players on both sides, but we start getting to running backs who might share more time, like Walker, Jones, Hall, and Gibbs. Higgins is Cincinnati's second receiver and the same for Smith in Philadelphia, but they get the workload of a number one, and the rest of the receivers are all at the top of their depth chart.

Rank Wide Receivers Running Backs
21. D.J. Moore (#48) J.K. Dobbins (#49)
22. Keenan Allen (#50) Cam Akers (#51)
23. Terry McLaurin (#52) James Conner (#58)
24. Mike Williams (#55) Isiah Pacheco (#63)
25. DeAndre Hopkins (#56) Rachaad White (#67)
26. Mike Evans (#59) David Montgomery (#69)
27. Brandon Aiyuk (#60) Alvin Kamara (#72)
28. Tyler Lockett (#61) James Cook (#74)
29. Chris Godwin (#65) Javonte Williams (#75)
30. Drake London (#66) D'Andre Swift (#81)

The overall ranks really start to separate here as Swift, 30th among running backs, is ranked lower overall than the 36th receiver, and the receivers lead the average overall rank 57.2 to 65.9. The receivers here are mostly top options with questionable quarterback play or second on their depth chart. The running backs are solid through #25, but everyone after that point has reasonable concern. This will be the case for the rest of the backs down the list.

Rank Wide Receivers Running Backs
31. Christian Kirk (#68) AJ Dillon (#83)
32. Marquise Brown (#73) Brian Robinson (#89)
33. Jahan Dotson (#76) Khalil Herbert (#90)
34. Diontae Johnson (#78) Dalvin Cook (#91)
35. George Pickens (#79) Rashaad Penny (#100)
36. Michael Pittman (#80) Jamaal Williams (#103)
37. Gabriel Davis (#82) Antonio Gibson (#107)
38. Brandin Cooks (#86) Samaje Perine (#108)
39. Jaxon Smith-Njigba (#87) Elijah Mitchell (#117)
40. Treylon Burks (#92) Zach Charbonnet (#118)

The average receiver in this group is ranked at 80.1 versus 100.6 for the running backs. Every running back here is either entrenched as the team's second option or in a serious timeshare. There is potential, and Robinson is one of my favorite breakout candidates, but the talent seriously lacks behind the receivers. Brown and Pittman are WR1s for their team, and Johnson and Pickens are a one-two punch with a ton of upside for Pittsburgh this season. Everyone else is second on the depth chart except for Smith-Njigba, who might be the most talented rookie receiver. (Pickens and Cooks are two of my favorite players to grab where they are ranked and think both will outplay their draft slot.)

Rank Wide Receivers Running Backs
41. Jordan Addison (#93) Kenneth Gainwell (#126)
42. Michael Thomas (#94) Damien Harris (#131)
43. Courtland Sutton (#95) Raheem Mostert (#135)
44. Zay Flowers (#96) Tyler Allgeier (#138)
45. Elijah Moore (#97) D'Onta Foreman (#143)
46. JuJu Smith-Schuster (#98) Devon Achane (#144)
47. Kadarius Toney (#99) Ezekiel Elliott (#145)
48. Quentin Johnston (#104) Jeff Wilson (#146)
49. Skyy Moore (#110) Roschon Johnson (#149)
50. Odell Beckham (#113) Devin Singletary (#152)

Average receiver rank: 99.9. Average running back rank: 140.9. There are thirteen more receivers listed between the 50th receiver (Beckham) and 50th back (Singletary).

Fifty receivers and backs equates to five at each position on every team in a 10-team league and seems like a good place to stop, though the numbers get more extreme the further down the rankings you go. Someone will start in Miami out of Mostert, Achane, and Wilson, but good luck choosing who will be productive and healthy each week. Everyone else has a clear option in front of them and will struggle to produce consistently. The list of receivers has a few big names who haven't produced in a while in Thomas and Beckham, and a few young players with potential like Addison, Flowers, and Johnston (all rookies).

Smith-Schuster is the number one receiver in New England and has a chance to be moderately successful week to week. Toney and Moore have breakout potential as the top wide receiver options for Patrick Mahomes, but Toney has struggled with injuries and Moore was uneven in his rookie season, so it's hard to choose who will benefit most. They are de facto number two receivers anyway, with Kelce as the top option in Kansas City. (I'm grabbing Toney a lot at the end of drafts, though, because the team tried to acquire him a few times and has been talking him up.) I wouldn't mind any receiver here on the bottom of my roster, but I don't want anything to do with any of the backs if I can help it.

What Does it Mean?

These rankings essentially include every back who will be drafted in most leagues while leaving off a dozen or more receivers who will usually end up on teams. As your fantasy draft runs through the early-middle rounds (about 2-10, or so) be aware of the most useful backs disappearing at a higher rate than receivers. I often leave the 10th round with at least five running backs and three receivers, and many times six backs.

They disappear fast, and having depth and multiple options when byes and injuries come up will serve your team well. There's another article to be written on streaming at other positions, but wide receivers and (especially) running backs don't often come off the waiver wire to make a big impact the way players do at other positions. I prefer to stock up on these players and go more week to week at tight end, defense, kicker, and sometimes quarterback.

Getting top-scoring players is important in the early rounds, so make sure you get the players most likely to have big years. Even preferring running backs, if I'm drafting 10th and seven backs have been picked, I'm going to grab Travis Kelce or one of the top receivers who is likely to be a superstar. After the first round (or maybe two), following the numbers and loading up on running backs is a smart play. They will be gone faster, and more impact receivers or matchup-dependent options will be available later in the draft.

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