News & Analysis

Fantasy Football 2021: Running backs and wide receivers to buy and sell in best ball leagues

Nov 26, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Washington Football Team wide receiver Terry McLaurin (17) waves to the Dallas Cowboys fans during the second half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The single greatest crutch argument to back any WR In today's pass-happy NFL is “boom-or-bust wide receiver X is better to draft in best ball,” a mantra that has become popular in recent years because the best-ball format caters to players (mostly wide receivers) with extreme volatility.

But contrary to popular belief, certain players aren't always better in the best-ball format. Those who provide consistent floors but offer little to no high-end upside can be just a waste of space on a best-ball squad. Sure, they’re great in more traditional formats where you’d rather take six or seven points than a total goose egg, but to win a big best-ball tournament, it would be wise to avoid drafting a roster chock-full of safe options.

By analyzing each player's mean fantasy points per game output in conjunction with their standard deviation (amount of variation with respect to their average output), PFF’s Ben Brown and I have created a floor/ceiling range of fantasy point outcomes for each player based on a certain probability (95%). Each player's fantasy points will fall into this range 95% of the time.

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The players who have the highest upper ranges are the quintessential “better in best ball” targets; the players who have inferior upper ranges are the prototypical safer options that are probably best suited for life in start/sit league formats.

This piece highlights some buy and sell candidates based on players who didn’t perform so well in the best-ball scoring system last season. Some players remain “sells” year over year, while others become “buys” with brighter outlooks in 2021.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Note: We have only listed receivers who scored between 12-15 fantasy points per game in 2020

Player Standard Deviation PPR Fantasy Points Per Game Upper Range Lower Range
Jarvis Landry 6.43 12.53 16.09 8.97
Tee Higgins 7.51 12.29 16.29 8.28
CeeDee Lamb 6.43 13.23 16.65 9.81
Robby Anderson 5.64 13.99 16.99 10.98
Tyler Boyd 7.89 12.84 17.21 8.47
D.J. Moore 6.43 14.1 17.66 10.54
Cooper Kupp 6.54 14.05 17.67 10.43
Curtis Samuel 6.77 14.14 17.89 10.39
Cole Beasley 7.53 13.83 18.01 9.66
JuJu Smith-Schuster 7.18 14.63 18.46 10.81
Sterling Shepard 8.38 13.38 18.7 8.05
Amari Cooper 7.67 14.68 18.76 10.59
Chase Claypool 10.0 13.47 18.8 8.14
Corey Davis 9.54 13.81 19.32 8.31
Marvin Jones Jr. 9.92 14.24 19.52 8.95
Diontae Johnson 9.11 14.93 19.97 9.88
Jamison Crowder 9.22 14.34 20.19 8.48
Kenny Golladay 7.46 13.16 22.43 3.89
Antonio Brown 10.38 14.64 23.32 5.96
Odell Beckham Jr. 12.76 12.4 24.2 0.61
SELL

JARVIS LANDRY, CLEVELAND BROWNS

Odell Beckham Jr. finished with the highest upper range of fantasy outcomes in the tier of receivers that averaged WR2/3 production (between 12 and 15 fantasy points per game). Teammate Jarvis Landry finished last (16.1) despite the two averaging nearly the same fantasy points per game. This is the perfect example of two players producing similarly in entirely different ways.

This is your reminder that Beckham’s return to the lineup will likely cap Landry’s weekly fantasy ceiling. The former Miami Dolphin failed to score more than 16 fantasy points in any game he played with a healthy Beckham last season — he only reached a 16-point threshold in games after OBJ’s injury.

ROBBY ANDERSON, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Like Landry, Robby Anderson also posted a low upper range of outcomes (10.98), the fourth-lowest mark among wide receivers in the WR2/3 tier. Anderson’s newfound role as the team’s go-to receiver on short to intermediate targets (different from his usage as a deep threat on the New York Jets) raised his floor dramatically (lowest volatility rating, highest lower range of outcomes), but the change didn’t necessarily increase his ceiling.

He scored only 20-plus fantasy points in one game last season, and exchanging a hyper-accurate (third in adjusted completion percentage) Teddy Bridgewater for Sam Darnold doesn’t inspire confidence that Anderson’s ceiling is now through the roof. Darnold’s accuracy woes — he was 34th in adjusted completion percentage last season — might potentially even lower Anderson’s floor in addition to his already lowered ceiling next season.

AMARI RODGERS, GREEN BAY PACKERS

There’s some buzz around Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers’ third-round pick out of Clemson, but don’t get carried away drafting him in the best-ball format. If he’s used similarly around the line of scrimmage and primarily in the slot as he was at the college level, you might never see any type of weekly high-end fantasy production.

Rodgers’ upper range of outcomes (22.5) ranked third-lowest among drafted players in his class who averaged at least 15 fantasy points per game. It ranked dead last among college WRs who averaged at least 17 fantasy points per game.

BUY

TERRY MCLAURIN, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM; ROBERT WOODS, LOS ANGELES RAMS

These two WRs are joined together because both were not “ideal best ball options” a season ago compared to other WRs who averaged similar fantasy production. Of the 20 WRs who averaged at least 15 fantasy points per game last season, Terry McLaurin (18.9) and Robert Woods (19.4) posted in the lowest upper range of fantasy outcomes.

Each player only scored over 20 fantasy points four times, and they combined for only one 30-point performance (Woods in Week 11). I’m being nitpicky, as both players were still viable weekly fantasy assets, but it’s just super important to note that we were mostly seeing floor performances last season.

But as we project to 2021, we should fully expect to see a handful of those floor performances transform into ceiling games, with both receivers seeing massive upgrades at the quarterback position.

Going from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford will substantially elevate Woods’ fantasy production. As mentioned in my breakdown of all 32 teams’ high-value usage, Goff never gave his offensive personnel high-value targets. Case in point: Woods only saw five end-zone targets and ranked outside the top 45 in team air-yards share.

That won’t be the case with Stafford. The ex-Lions quarterback finished seventh in end-zone pass attempts, third in team air yards and 11th in deep-ball attempts in 2020.

The Washington Football Team offense was built around checking the ball down to J.D. McKissic in 2020 — every WFT quarterback not named Taylor Heinicke finished outside the top 48 QBs in aDOT last season.  Ryan Fitzpatrick ranks fourth in the NFL in aDOT (9.7) since the start of 2018.

Prepare to add McLaurin to the list of WRs destined to take a giant leap forward, thanks to Fitzmagic.

TEE HIGGINS, CINCINNATI BENGALS; TYLER BOYD, CINCINNATI BENGALS; CEEDEE LAMB, DALLAS COWBOYS

I didn’t plan on calling out this group of wide receivers for their low range of outcomes because the reason is self-explanatory: horrible quarterback play due to injury.

Still, it presents an opportunity to address a bigger best-ball concept at hand — we shouldn’t ever expect a surplus of spiked fantasy weeks from WRs who have inefficient QBs throwing them the football.

It’s a friendly reminder not to go buck wild drafting WRs from the Houston Texans, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers or Denver Broncos because those players will have inherently lower fantasy ceilings attached to sub-par QBs.

I probably should lower my best-ball exposure to Brandin Cooks ever so slightly.

RUNNING BACKS

Note: We have only listed running backs who scored between 12-16 fantasy points per game in 2020

Player Standard Deviation PPR Fantasy Points Per Game Upper Range Lower Range
J.D. McKissic 6.82 12.09 15.72 8.45
Nyheim Hines 7.88 12.01 16.21 7.81
Kenyan Drake 6.72 12.95 16.67 9.23
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 5.22 13.54 16.69 10.39
James Conner 6.91 12.65 16.83 8.48
Kareem Hunt 6.96 13.66 17.36 9.95
Ronald Jones 7.09 13.59 17.69 9.5
Melvin Gordon III 7.36 13.76 17.83 9.69
Raheem Mostert 6.63 12.71 18.25 7.17
Mike Davis 8.21 13.9 18.44 9.36
Miles Sanders 7.95 14.2 19.25 9.15
D'Andre Swift 7.3 14.91 19.32 10.5
Ezekiel Elliott 7.06 15.45 19.36 11.54
Antonio Gibson 8.7 14.73 19.75 9.7
Chris Carson 6.52 15.65 19.8 11.5
David Johnson 7.65 15.13 19.99 10.26
Josh Jacobs 8.59 15.69 20.44 10.93
Jeff Wilson Jr. 11.15 13.3 20.79 5.81

SELL

J.D. MCKISSIC, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAMNYHEIM HINES, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two running backs who finished highest in points per game in conjunction with the lowest range of upper outcomes are two premium RB pass-catching specialists, J.D. McKissic and Nyheim Hines. These two are extremely polarizing best-ball targets because while they do put up fantasy points, they almost always will have limited ceilings without roles as dedicated ball carriers.

Considering they’re cheaper pass-catching backs in the very late rounds of drafts, I’ll opt for RBs with more three-down potential in the range where McKissic/Hines are being drafted.

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