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Safety First: How Often Do Top Fantasy Skill Positions Bust?

The NFL draft is still a month away, and your fantasy drafts even further than that. However for seasonal fantasy players, the draft is the most important day of your season. So any amount of coverage is good coverage. Last week we took a look at the first overall pick in the draft. We checked how it’s done historically and discussed what kind of value it should have. This week we’ll take a look at the top drafted wide receivers and running backs each year and their bust percentage. Which position is safer to draft? Let’s find out.

(Draft data taken from Fantasydata.com and ranking data taken from FantasyPros.com. PPR Scoring, 12 team league)

2014

Draft data goes back to 2014, so we’ll start there. Even in a PPR, the first five picks were running backs. While the next two picks were wide receivers, we have to wait all the way until pick 14 to complete our set. 

(ADP = Average Draft Position. GP = Games Played)

LeSean McCoy: ADP 1.8, RB 12,  GP 15Calvin Johnson: ADP 6.4, WR 18, GP 12
Jamaal Charles: ADP 2.7, RB 7, GP 14Demaryius Thomas: ADP 7.2, WR 2, GP 15
Adrian Peterson: ADP 3.9, RB 126, GP 1Dez Bryant: ADP 9.4, WR 4, GP 15
Eddie Lacy: ADP 5.9, RB 6, GP 15A.J. Green: ADP 11.8, WR 24, GP 12
Matt Forte: ADP 6, RB 2, GP 15Julio Jones: ADP 13.6 WR 6, GP 14

Round one goes slightly to the running backs in a close contest, although you could go either way depending on what you value. Overall it was a pretty great year for the top picks. The lone major bust was Adrian Peterson, and no one could have predicted him missing the whole year. All of the other running backs finished with RB 1 status (one of the 12 best running backs), while two of the wide receivers finished as WR 2s (between 12-24).

Running Tally

RB Busts: 1/5WR Busts: 0/5
RB 1: 4/5WR 1: 3/5

2015

This year saw the WRs as a group move up quite a bit. Unlike 2014 where RB’s were the first five picks, Antonio Brown managed to break the RB stranglehold and was drafted 2nd overall in PPR.

Adrian Peterson: ADP 1.8, RB 2, GP 15Antonio Brown: ADP 2.5, WR 2, GP 15
Le’Veon Bell: ADP 3.1, RB 44, GP 6Julio Jones: ADP 6.2, WR 1, GP 15
Eddie Lacy: ADP 4, RB 31, GP 14Dez Bryant ADP 7.6, WR 77, GP 9
Jamaal Charles: ADP 4.5, RB 49, GP 5Demaryius Thomas ADP 9.1, WR 12, GP 15
Marshawn Lynch: ADP 8.6, RB 55, GP 7Odell Beckham Jr. ADP 11.4, WR 5. GP 14

The receivers take 2015 in a massive landslide. Only Adrian Peterson of the runners managed to be playable. Of course, the running backs missed a ton of games, but that is kind of an inherent risk with that position. Not many make it through the whole year unscathed. To be fair though, Bell and Charles were really great for the 5-6 games you had them. Lacy didn’t manage to perform even with a mostly full slate of games. On the other hand, besides Dez Bryant who suffered an injury as well, the pass catchers were pretty great. Three returned top five value, and the other one was still a WR 1. 

Running Tally

RB Busts: 5/10WR Busts: 1/10
RB 1: 5/10WR 1: 7/10

2016

Antonio Brown earns the honor of the first (and only) wideout taken first overall of the years we are looking at. Perhaps the dreadful performance of the top RBs were weighing on drafter’s minds, as the top three picks were pass catchers. Going even further, the top five WRs went in the first seven picks. The running backs didn’t fall too far though, as all five were in the first round, coming in at T3, 5, 8, 10 and 11.

David Johnson: ADP 3.4, RB 1, GP 15Antonio Brown: ADP 1.2, WR 1. GP 15
Todd Gurley II: ADP 6.3, RB 18, GP 15Julio Jones: ADP 2.8, WR 8, GP 13
Ezekiel Elliot: ADP 9.2, RB 2, GP 15Odell Beckham Jr.: ADP 3.4, WR 3, GP 15
Lamar Miller: ADP 9.8, RB 16, GP 14A.J. Green: ADP 6.4, WR 28, GP 10
Adrian Peterson: ADP 10.7, RB 120, GP 3DeAndre Hopkins: ADP 6.4, WR 34, GP 15

Another close call, possibly a win for the wide receivers. We had two top five guys on each side, and both sides had one bust. It’s hard to say who busted more. While Peterson obviously produced less, you knew early on you’d have to replace him. On the other hand Hopkins probably languished in your lineup most of the year continually hurting you. Besides that, the WRs had another top 12 guy, but also had someone fall out of starter territory unlike the backs. However, Green only fell to WR 28 because he missed six games. He was fantastic in the ten games you had him, so I wouldn’t consider him a bust. We’ll mark him as a half.

Running Tally

RB Busts: 6/15WR Busts: 2.5/15
RB 1: 7/15WR 1: 10/15

 2017 

The most even split we’ve had to date, with the running backs and wide receivers each having five of the first ten picks. The RBs had three of the top five though, including numbers one and two.

David Johnson: ADP 1.3, RB 111, GP 1Antonio Brown: ADP 3.7, WR 1, GP 14
Le’Veon Bell: ADP 2.3, RB 2, GP 15Julio Jones: ADP 5.7, WR 7, GP 15
Ezekiel Elliot: ADP 6.2, RB 14, GP 9Odell Beckham Jr.: ADP 6.4, WR 81, GP 4
Devonta Freeman: ADP 7, RB 15, GP 13Mike Evans: ADP 7.9, WR 18, GP 14
LeSean McCoy: ADP 7.8, RB 7, GP 15A.J. Green: ADP 10, WR 10, GP 15

The closest battle we’ve had, this one is also a tie, with perhaps a slight lean to the wide receiver side. Both sides had one bust due to early injury. While the wide receivers did have one more in the top 12 club, they also had the highest placing at 18 compared to the 15 of the running backs. Zeke managing to get RB 14 only playing nine games is quite the achievement. While you did only have him for nine games, he did pop off in those nine. On the other hand the wide receivers were remarkably healthy this year, Beckham Jr. aside.

Running Tally

RB Busts: 7/20WR Busts: 3.5/20
RB 1: 9/20WR 1: 13/20

2018 

Despite the fact the wide receivers already seem much more consistent, 2018 shifted back to a heavy running back emphasis in the first round. 11 backs were taken before we got to our fifth wide receiver. Pick 16 is the latest we’ve needed to go for so far for our data set. 

Todd Gurley II: ADP 1.3, RB 2, GP 14Antonio Brown: ADP 4.7, WR 2, GP 15
Le’Veon Bell: ADP 3.1, RB NA, GP 0DeAndre Hopkins: ADP 9.5, WR 4, GP 15
David Johnson: ADP 3.3, RB 9, GP 15Odell Beckham Jr: ADP 11.5, WR 14, GP 12
Ezekiel Elliot: ADP 4.6, RB 5, GP 15Julio Jones: ADP 14.3, WR 7, GP 16
Alvin Kamara: ADP 5.7, RB 4, GP 15Michael Thomas: ADP 16.2, WR 3, GP 15

Another close one because how fantastic the top picks did, the winner has to be the wide receivers however. Only because Le’Veon Bell ended up sitting the whole year which gives the group the only top five bust of the season. Just like in 2014, every running back ended up as a RB 1, and they had three of the top five. On the other hand, the wide receivers did have one guy fall slightly out of WR 1 status due to injury, but also had three top five guys and number seven. A really consistent group this year.

Running Tally

RB Busts: 8/25WR Busts: 3.5/25
RB 1: 13/25WR 1: 17/25

2019

Another year of running back dominance, with four of the top five picks going to rushers, and eight in the first round. Also the first time since 2015 that Antonio Brown wasn’t the first receiver off the board, ending a remarkable run by him. 

Saquon Barkley: ADP 1.4, RB 12, GP 12Davante Adams: ADP 6.4, WR 26, GP 11
Alvin Kamara: ADP 2.5, RB 11, GP 13DeAndre Hopkins: ADP 7, WR 3, GP 15
Christian McCaffrey: ADP 3.2, RB 1, GP 15Julio Jones: ADP 10.2, WR 4, GP 14
Ezekiel Elliot: ADP 3.9, RB 5, GP 15Michael Thomas: ADP 10.4, WR 1, GP 15
James Conner: ADP 7.1, RB 31, GP 10JuJu Smith-Schuster: ADP 12.9, WR 62, GP 11

The first clear victory for the running back crew. They only had one bust, and it was just barely in James Conner. He was solid in the games he did play in, clocking in at RB 16 in points per game. On the other hand, the receivers had a clear bust in Smith-Schuster. Davante Adams was identical to A.J. Green in 2016. He played the majority of the season and was a top six guy when he did play, so Adams is another .5. The wide receivers also had one, three and four, while the backs only had two in the top five. But at least everyone but Conner ended up as an RB 1.

Running Tally

RB Busts: 9/30WR Busts: 5/30
RB 1: 17/30WR 1: 20/30

2020

Probably no surprise that after a win for the running backs the draft got even more running back heavy. The first seven picks were all rushers. In fact, we had to go all the way to pick 20 to get our five receivers. Through the years, it started running back heavy, got more even, and now is currently more running back slanted than ever before.

Christian McCaffrey: ADP 1.2, RB 51, GP 3Michael Thomas: ADP 6.7, WR 88, GP 7
Saquon Barkley: ADP 2.4, RB 115, GP 2Davante Adams: ADP 10.7, WR 1, GP 13
Ezekiel Elliot: ADP 3.7, RB 10, GP 14Julio Jones: ADP 13.6, WR 46, GP 9
Alvin Kamara: ADP 5.6, RB 1, GP 15Tyreek Hill: ADP 16.9, WR 2, GP 15
Clyde Edwards-Helaire: ADP 6.2, RB 19, GP 13DeAndre Hopkins: ADP 19.3, WR 4, GP 15

The year with the most total busts, though I think everybody who made it through 2020 would understand. This one goes to the wide receivers again. Despite the busts being 2-2, the wide receivers that didn’t bust were the best in the business, occupying spots one, two and four. On the other side, the running backs had just one top five RB in their midst.

Final Tally

RB Busts: 11/35WR Busts: 7/35
RB 1: 19/35WR 1: 23/35

Final Conclusions

While this is a small sample size, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the data play out similarly over the rest of the years. Or perhaps football is becoming more chaotic. Anyways, we see here that the top wide receivers are generally the safer pick. They are both more likely to be a WR 1 (and often in the top five) and less likely to bust than the top running backs. Every year there was at least one bust in the top five running backs, while the wide receivers had two years with no busts. 

A first round bust can often mean the end of your season right then and there. So before you feel like you have to draft a running back, maybe rethink and reorganize. Do you need the risky running back just because there aren’t many of them, or do you go with the safer option and take top pass catcher?