Quick: What did all the winners have in common in the first week of the playoffs? Besides being the home team, of course. Stellar running back? Lights-out play by the quarterback? It sure wasn't the tight end position.
They all had at least one great wide receiver performance. Your league champion probably had the same thing on their team, too.
Fantasy football and real football almost never share the same trends. We try to mirror the real thing, but it usually ends up feeling a bit manufactured and forced. It's great fun, but something less than perfect.
But the value of receivers has been emerging in both formats, and we're seeing it in the playoffs this year. Running backs Thomas Rawls and Le'Veon Bell had fantasy-highlight days, of course. But the Packers didn't have a 50-yard rusher, and Lamar Miller averaged less than 2.5 yards per carry. The quarterbacks weren't terrible, but Aaron Rodgers had the one memorable QB performance.
The receivers, however, were a different story. The top five pass-catchers (Baldwin, Hopkins, Brown, Cobb and Adams) combined for 34 catches, more than 500 receiving yards and seven scores. Those five guys scored nearly half of the winning teams' touchdowns.
(Hopkins had just 67 yards with a score, but his quarterback was Brock Osweiler. So he kind of gets a pass here).
Now, think back to your league. Maybe the winner had Elliott, McCoy, Bell or Johnson at running back. Maybe they didn't. But they probably had a stellar receiver or two. You can get by with marginal running backs, but you can't win consistently without great receiver production.
This isn't a new development. You've seen it evolving for a few years now. Even with a few potent running backs in play, receivers are still on the rise.
And in a PPR league, it becomes even more obvious. The NFL likes high-scoring contests, and wants to see big passing numbers. That translates to strong receiver production, even in a standard format. Add in flex positions that allow you to go even heavier at wide receiver, and it's clear that the position still has prominence while the running back position has waned.
Part of that change is due to a lack of three-down workhorses. Aside from the backs I mentioned, who else was a must-have performer week in and week out? On one hand, if you can get a star back like Elliott, Johnson or Bell, of course you'll do it. Those guys are revitalizing the running back position, and making an early RB fantasy pick a smart move again.
On the other hand, you can build a champion without them. That goes for real life, too.
Of the eight remaining teams in the playoffs, three of them (Packers, Chiefs, Seahawks) have struggled with their running game all year. Two of them (Dallas, Pittsburgh) have great backs, and the rest have talent that might or might not show up from week to week. So while there were some great performances (Blount has 18 scores), the running game has been more hit and miss.
But 10 of the year's top 15 receivers (in terms of yardage) were in the NFL playoffs this year. Six of them are on teams that are still playing, and unless Dallas and Houston face off in the Super Bowl, at least one will vie for a ring. NFL teams are realizing the necessity of a top receiver, and fantasy teams know it as well.
This year, I had the top pick in one of my redraft leagues, and I chose Antonio Brown. I passed over Elliott, Bell, Murray, Johnson, etc. Kind of dumb, right? You can look at the numbers and see who had more yards and scores.
But with Brown and Mike Evans starting every week, and Crabtree at flex, I didn't pay for that mistake. At the end of the year, the team had the most points in the league and claimed the championship.
I'm not bragging. You can see I didn't make the right call in the first round. I'm saying that good receivers can help cover for mistakes like passing over David Johnson or Ezekiel Elliott. If you don't get a top running back, you can still win. But without strength at wide receiver, you're going to lose. That wasn't always the case, but that's the reality in fantasy football. Maybe in the NFL, too.
Of course, the quarterback is still the most important position in the NFL. If there's an upset this weekend, really great (or really poor) quarterback play will be the reason. But imagine if Eli Manning had receivers who actually caught the ball against the Packers. Might things have turned out differently? I think the divisional round, like the wildcard round, will highlight the importance of wide receivers. And it's something to keep in mind this August as well. You've seen this trend for a while now, and despite the new RB stars, it's not changing any time soon. Enjoy the games.
Did you succeed this year with stellar receivers? Or did your league champion get by with poor pass-catchers? Am I going too far, and overestimating the value of the WR position? Share your thoughts below.