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Splitsville: Flexing your WR muscles

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

It’s generally presumed that running backs are the best fantasy football flex plays because they get “guaranteed touches.” But I don’t presume anything. I want to see data that proves it.

Lucky for us, an internet search led me to a person who has done the hard work of coming up with an actual answer to the “which position is best to flex” question. Cedric Hopkins researches sports questions with the same high-level of passion he applies to his law clients. And he catalogs this work on his website, www.fieldandcourt.com. So in the second ever “Splitsville” column, let’s feature our first-ever special guest.

Splitsville: I suspected that historic data would show that we are all swimming upstream in blindly favoring third-tier running backs over third-tier wide receivers in flex positions. But I was shocked that your research came to this conclusion in standard, non-PPR scoring. How much does PPR tilt the flex scale to WRs, using 2012 data?

Field and Court’s Cedric Hopkins: The running backs’ side of the flex teeter-totter is buried into the ground. In 2012, the running backs finishing in the 25-36 point range in PPR leagues scored a total of 1,606 fantasy points. That averages out to 133.8 points per player for the season and 8.36 points per game. The wide receivers finishing in the same range (25-36) in PPR leagues scored a total of 2,168 fantasy points, which translates into 180.6 points per player for the season and 11.29 points per game. The wide receivers in the same range as the running backs (25-36) scored 562 more total points in 2012, and averaged almost three more points per game (2.93).

Splitsville: Okay, but that assumes a 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 Flex lineup. Let’s try to help the running backs out by assuming 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 Flex while keeping the PPR scoring (sorry, Andy Behrens, you know I’m your brother in arms when it comes to #killtheppr). Now we’re looking at WRs in the 37-48 group (the next group of 12 WRs) and keeping the running backs at 25-36. What do the numbers for 2012 say now?

Hopkins: The wide receivers finishing in the 37-48 range in 2012 PPR leagues (1.0 PPR) outscored the running backs in total points, 1,877-to-1,606. The 37-48 wide receivers averaged 156.4 points for the season and 9.77 points per game, compared to the 25-36 RBs scoring an average of 133.8 points for the season and 8.36 points per game.

Let’s pair the 25-36 RBs from last year versus their 37-48 WRs counterpart. RB 25 Darren McFadden (153 points) vs. WR 37 Percy Harvin (167), WR 26 DeMarco Murray (146) vs. WR 38 Malcolm Floyd (167), RB 27 DeAngelo Williams (143) vs. WR 39 Denarius Moore (167), RB 28 J. Rodgers (141) vs. WR 40 Golden Tate (161), RB 29 Willis McGahee (139) vs. WR 41 Josh Gordon (159), RB 30 Ryan Mathews (137) vs. WR 42 Donnie Avery (157), RB 31 Marcel Reece (135), vs. WR 43 Dwayne Bowe (155), RB 32 Pierre Thomas (134) vs. WR 44 Jeremy Kerley (153), RB 33 Vick Ballard (132) vs. WR45 Brandon Gibson (150), RB 34 Felix Jones (117) vs. WR 46 Kendall Wright (149), RB 35 Fred Jackson (115) vs. WR 47 Danny Amendola (146), RB 36 Mike Tolbert (114) vs. WR 48 Santana Moss (146).

Here’s the key: The lowest scoring WR in the 37-48 range still scored as many points as the second-highest 25-36 RB.

Splitsville: So target WRs more highly in the draft and in-season so we can stick them in our flex spots?

Hopkins: After seeing how the numbers actually play out, absolutely for in-season play. Wide receivers are more consistent and there is a larger pool likely to produce solid fantasy points. There appears to be a small sample size to choose from among running backs equally likely to score. But for the draft, it may be better to target three running backs in the first four or five rounds due to the production cliff after the fifth round or so. Even if you’re not going to use that third running back for the flex position, you still need solid depth at the position.

Splitsville: So it’s not dumb to start our drafts RB, RB, RB even though we could/should audible in season to using a WR in our flex spots? That seems counter-intuitive.

Hopkins: If you want quality depth at the RB spot, then you’d grab more RBs than WRs. And because of the consistency (of fantasy points scored) of the wide receiver position through the top 24 spots, combined with their much later ADP in the middle of the 6th round), a fantasy owner can hold off taking a wide receiver and stack running backs. The 25-36 group of running backs’ ADP started at the 5.09 spot (Cedric Benson) and went to the 8.04 draft spot (Mark Ingram). The 37th wide receiver had an ADP at the beginning of the ninth round. The running backs do a nose-dive in terms of fantasy points scored starting with the 25th running back selected in 2012. The ADP 13-24 running backs averaged 156.3 points. The ADP 25-36 running backs averaged just 61.

Obviously, your draft strategy would differ depending on your draft spot. But this data would suggest that it is best to grab a top running back and then one top-12 wide receiver and then as many running backs before the middle of the fifth round.

Splitsville: Okay, let’s get really nuts now. How about playing the 13-24 tight ends in the flex versus RBs 25-36? And just to be clear, we’re talking how they actually scored now (not preseason ADP as in the prior question). In other words, these are ranked in hindsight based on actual performance. (Cedrick and I agree that if you land three of the top 24 backs, by all means start them.)

Hopkins: In Week 1 of 2013, the 25th through 36th RBs scored 93 points in PPR leagues (68 in standard leagues). The 13th through 24th tight ends scored 113 in PPR (71 standard). If Week 1 is any indication, it looks like it’s better to play a tight end in the flex spot instead of a 25-36 running back.
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