The First Round – Recency Bias Is Real

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By Brian Mackowick (@BMaaaaac)

Many people have different views on which position to attack first in their draft, and the consensus on this seems to vary year-to-year. The debate on whether to grab a top-tier running back or an elite wide receiver tends to be primarily dependent on the prior year’s results. You shouldn’t be afraid to take who you want, but if you tend to follow the expert rankings, and if you’ve been participating in mock drafts this year, you’re surely noticing how quickly running backs are coming off the board. You may recall it wasn’t too long ago that wide receivers were atop every expert’s draft list. So, who should you take?

By The Numbers

According to average draft position (ADP) data provided by Fantasy Football Calculator (@FFCalculator), 2018 PPR drafts are averaging nine first-round running backs and just three first-round wide receivers. Here’s how the last four years have compared with respect to RB vs WR (both number drafted and average ADP) in the first round of drafts:

From 2015 to 2016 we see a relatively significant drop-off in average ADP at the running back position from 5.33 to 8.33. From 2016 to 2017, this reverses and we again see an emphasis on running backs with the average ADP improving from 8.33 to 5.67. While on the surface it appears we are seeing a slight decline in average ADP for 2018 running backs, this is skewed by the fact that we are seeing nine taken in the first round whereas just six were taken in each of the previous three seasons.

As noted above, the average ADP of the first six running backs off the board so far this year sits at just 3.83, the lowest it has been since 2014. That means on average just one wide receiver is going in the top six picks.

So, why are we seeing such an emphasis on running backs the last couple years while the average ADP of first-round wide receivers has fallen?

RB or WR – Is There Any Sure Thing?

If we take a look at the positional finishes of 2017 and 2016’s first-round fantasy draft picks, relative to their ADPs, we can start to understand the reason behind the trends we’re seeing:

During the last two seasons, per Pro Football Reference (@PFREF), we see ten top-20 finishes at the running back position and seven at the wide-receiver position for first-round picks in a 12-team PPR league. The perception, then, is that the running back position has been a safer bet early on, at least most recently. To further this point, consider the average positional finish of these first-round selections at both positions over the 2017 and 2016 seasons, injury-shortened campaigns excluded (DJ, AP and OBJ); 8th for RB, 16th for WR.

As some of you may remember, the 2015 running-back group selected in the first round did not fare as well as their 2016 and 2017 counterparts:

Here we see quite the opposite of what occurred in 2016 and 2017; five of the six running backs drafted in the first round finished outside the top 30 of PPR leagues, while four of the five wide receivers finished inside the top 11. The three-point drop in average ADP for running backs from 2015 to 2016 can be directly attributed to the dismal performances posted by the top-tier running backs in 2015 in my opinion. Why? Recency bias is real.

While there are other factors that may contribute to how the first round selections play out in your fantasy draft (depth of position, home-team favoritism, etc.), recency bias, in my opinion, tends to carry the most weight. Because of this, as I said earlier, don’t be afraid to take who you want!

If Antonio Brown is your guy and you take him first overall, who can argue with you for taking arguably the best wide receiver in the league? If someone does, just remind them Antonio Brown was the consensus 1.01 just two years ago. There are no certainties in this game, so go with your gut, get your guy, and get ready for some football!

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Brian Mackowick