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2016 Fantasy Football Preview: Wide receivers and tight ends

Wide receivers are taking over round 1 of fantasy drafts. Are all of the good tight ends already hurt?

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals
Tyler Eifert is an elite tight end in fantasy, when healthy
Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

In the latest installment of the Fantasy Football Insider, brought to you by Cincy Jungle’s very own Orange and Black Insider podcast, we take a look at defenses and kickers to evaluate when should you draft them, and why. Keep up with the podcast on Twitter @BengalsOBI or download it directly on iTunes!

Wide Receivers

If you have played fantasy football for any period of time, you know the tried and true philosophy of drafting running backs early and often. As someone who has made the playoffs in 90 percent of the leagues I’ve been in, and claimed a championship in half of those, I can attest to the fortitude of this strategy, as it’s one I’ve been a firm disciple of, with great results. But 2016 looks like the year that is going to turn the world of fantasy football drafting on its head.

Looking at a decade worth of drafts, including early drafts from this year, we see some very strong changes to the landscape of draft boards. We compare the average draft positions from drafts covering 2007 through 2015, and compare that to drafts that have been taking place so far in 2016.

From 2007~2015 a running back has always been selected first, and an average of 5.2 running backs were drafted before any player from another position was drafted. In 2016, drafts are breaking that trend with a wide receiver going first, and second, and in some leagues a wide receiver is going third. In 2012 only three wide receivers were drafted in the first two rounds (24 picks), but in 2016 we could see three wide receivers go in the first 3 picks!

From 2007~2015 an average of five running backs went in the first six picks, eight went in the first round, and 13 12 went in the first two rounds.

In 2016 only three are going in the first six picks, and only six are going in the first round, with 11 going in the first two rounds.

Running back are disappearing from the top of of most drafts this year. Meanwhile, wide receivers are popping up like weeds in early spring in your lawn.

From 2007~2015 a wide receiver was never ranked in the first four picks, and only rarely went in the first six picks. An average of two wide receivers were drafted in the first round, with seven going in the first three rounds.

In 2016 we are seeing three receivers taken in the top six picks, six taken in round one, and 12 taken in the top two rounds.

The increased passing game in the NFL has done wonders for the draft stock of wide receivers. But contrary to what one might expect, quarterbacks are seeing the opposite result. As passing becomes so prevalent, many quarterbacks are passing for good production, meaning that the drop-off isn’t as drastic as in years past. So the increased passing has boosted the stock of the pass catchers while it’s diminished the stock of the guys throwing the ball. Weird.

So this leads us to an important question - are wide receivers worth taking so early?

The answer is a resounding “Sort of”.

Drafting is all about value versus opportunity cost - what are you getting with your pick compared to the rest of the field.

Historically, the top running backs were three-down workhorses who compiled over 300 touches and churned out many yards and touchdowns. Because they were so much better than the rest of the running backs, if you could get one or two of these guys they would carry your fantasy team. So people drafted running backs early and often to get these players. But those players just don’t exist in 2016, so there isn’t a huge drop-off in the running back department, where one or two of them can carry the rest of your roster.

But this year we do find that this drop-off is more likely to exist at the wide receiver position. The receivers going in the top half of round one (Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, and DeAndre Hopkins) are high volume producers who project to score well above their counterparts, and the next tier of guys like A.J. Green and Dez Bryant are far superior than the receivers going a round or two later, such as Jarvis Landry, Kelvin Benjamin, and Randall Cobb.

Because we find this huge drop-off in projected production at wide receiver, instead of at running back, there is good value versus opportunity cost in drafting a wide receiver in round one, assuming you draft the correct one, of course. This doesn’t mean avoid running backs altogether (as a popular “zero RB” fad would suggest), but it does mean be open to drafting a wide receiver much earlier than you ever did before, if the value is there.

Tight Ends

While wide receivers are trending up, tight ends are failing to see the boost in their draft stock from the more prolific passing game of today’s NFL. But this is only because so many of them are carrying significant injury risks that scares off potential drafters. Looking at the top candidates as TE1 or TE2, many are currently injured, or carry injury risks, or have other factors deflating their draft stock.

Currently injured:

  • Tyler Eifert
  • Jimmy Graham
  • Charles Clay
  • Ladarius Green
  • Eric Ebron

Just back from injury

  • Rob Gronkowski
  • Jordan Reed

Injury history:

  • Julius Thomas
  • Antonio Gates
  • Kyle Rudolph
  • Clive Walford (offseason injury)

So how is one to navigate the sea of injured tight ends?

If you can get a solid, healthy tight end like Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen or Delanie Walker, that is one solution. But there are many more teams in your league than healthy tight ends.

This year there are many tight ends (Zach Miller, Ebron, Clay, Martellus Bennett, Rudolph, Walford, Jared Cook) who have upside to be decent TE1 starters, but won’t be drafted as TE1’s, if drafted at all. If you draft an injury risk like Gronkowski or Reed, or a player who doesn’t repeat his career year (Barnidge) or live up to the hype (Fleener), these upside types would be good targets as a TE2 or waiver add, if your league only drafts one TE per team.

When to draft an injury risk like Gronk, Reed or Eifert?

These are the elite of the tight ends, when healthy. In 2015, Eifert led all tight ends with 13 touchdowns, while Reed and Gronk each scored 11. None of these three tight ends played 16 games last year, and of the three of them, only Gronk has achieved that feat - back in 2011.

If all three of these tight ends were models of health, based on their “per game” production, they could all be off the board by the end of round two. But injuries have pushed down their draft stock.

Unfortunately injuries are a fact of life in fantasy football and can happen to anybody, at any time. A season ending injury could happen in Week 16 just as likely as in Week 1, but the player hurt in Week 1 will be viewed as more “injury prone” than the one who suffers the same injury in Week 16 because he missed more games.

With more passing in the NFL, waiver wire tight ends are scoring more points than they did in the past. Therefore it’s a little easier to find a random tight end to fill in for a week or two when an injury hits. So don’t feel a need to discount these elite tight ends too much due to injury concerns, because they will be great when they play, and you can probably survive a game here or there if they are out.