What happens when a QB loses his best WR?

BY foxsports • November 20, 2014

Jonathan Bales is the author of the popular book “Fantasy Football for Smart People.” You can find daily fantasy football strategy updates from Jonathan on the DraftKings Playbook.

Fantasy football is such a workload-dependent game, so capitalizing on injuries is important; we all know that when a starting running back or wide receiver goes down, for example, his backup can often offer a lot of value on DraftKings due solely to the bump in opportunities.

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But how are other positons affected? For example, how is a starting quarterback affected when he loses his top wide receiver? That particular question is one that has interested me for a long time, so I set out to answer it.

Of course, the answer to this question might seem obvious; of course quarterbacks perform worse without their top receivers, right?

I like to explore questions that seem to have clear-cut answers because, many times, the answer is far from intuitive. Do players perform better in contract seasons? OF COURSE they do (they don’t). Do running backs break down after a heavy workload? OF COURSE they do (they don’t). Do I have a life outside of fantasy sports? OF COURSE I do (I don’t).

Another reason is that if I look at a very basic question and break it down, then confirm a hunch that “everyone knew was true,” there’s still a ton of value in quantifying it. So even if players were better in contract seasons, it would still make sense to quantify the effect so we know how much of a boost to give those players. Otherwise, we’d just be arbitrarily bumping guys up in our rankings with no rhyme or reason behind it.

On top of that, sometimes you can set out to tackle a question and come away with insights that have nothing to do with the original proposition. I recently did a regression analysis of combine measurables for running backs, seeking to uncover the value (or lack thereof) of the short shuttle, and found that the three-cone drill has a surprisingly strong correlation with NFL running back success.

Nbd.

So I think there’s more than a little value in studying the “obvious” in great detail, and one such phenomenon is the decline in quarterback fantasy production after losing his No. 1 wide receiver. We’d definitely expect quarterbacks to perform worse without their top receiving option, but how strong is the effect and how can we adjust weekly quarterback rankings to compensate?

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I charted the fantasy points per game for quarterbacks over the past five years, breaking down the overall average versus the average when a quarterback’s No. 1 wide receiver was out.

DraftKings

Quarterbacks actually performed better without their top wide receiver than with him in 2011 and 2012, barely, while they were worse without him in 2009, 2010, and 2013—very much so in 2009 and 2013.

There aren’t a whole lot of games to study each year because it’s not like every team loses their No. 1 wide receiver for an extended period of time, so there’s probably a decent amount of variance in those results. We can get rid of that by studying all five years as a whole.

I charted the percentage of individual games that a quarterback had worse stats without his No. 1 wide receiver as compared to his average on the year. If everything were totally random, we’d expect the rate for every stat to hover around 50 percent.

DraftKings

As a whole, quarterbacks have been worse in every single area of passing when missing their No. 1 wide receiver—fantasy points, touchdowns, completion rate, interceptions, and yards. The effect on interceptions is the smallest, likely due to a decreased number of overall attempts.

Interpreting the graph in a different way, you could say that when a quarterback loses his No. 1 wide receiver, on average, there’s at least a 60 percent chance that his fantasy production will be worse in any given game (and, it appears, closer to about two-thirds). That effect strengthens as the season rolls along; if a quarterback were to lose his top receiver for an extended period of time, it would be very likely that his overall stats during that time would be worse than normal.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine that your quarterback’s fantasy performance is normally equivalent to a coin flip; if you get heads, he’ll perform worse than normal, and if you get tails, he’ll produce better than normal. Pretty straightforward. Well, when his No. 1 wide receiver goes down, that coin flip turns into the roll of a die, but you need to roll one of two numbers for him to be better than his average. So instead of flipping tails, you’ll need to roll a ‘1’ or a ‘2’ in a six-sided die, for example—a much stiffer challenge.

Finally, we can break down the average of every relevant stat for quarterbacks with and without their No. 1 receivers.

Quarterbacks are worse in every single area when their top wide receiver goes missing. They attempt and complete fewer passes. They throw for fewer yards, touchdowns, and yards-per-attempt. Their interceptions increase. And, of course, their overall fantasy output declines.

Based on the last five years of data, the average quarterback is likely to give you only around 92 percent of his normal fantasy production. That’s not to say that every quarterback should be projected that way, but simply that we can use that as a baseline and then work from there.

One thing that would obviously effect a quarterback’s production when he loses his top receiver is how much he leaned on him in the past. A quarterback like Drew Brees probably won’t suffer all that much if he loses one of his receiving weapons, whereas Matthew Stafford, as we’ve seen, can be crippled without Megatron.

We could potentially just look at typical No. 1 wide receiver usage around the league, compare that to the No. 1 wide receiver for the quarterback in question, then adjust accordingly. My hunch is that, because DraftKings’ pricing changes so much from week to week, most quarterbacks who lose their No. 1 receiver would probably see their salary drop quite a bit—more than 10 percent, perhaps—in which case they’d probably offer value.

Overall, I’m not really sure whether or not I’m surprised by the results. Losing nearly 10 percent of fantasy production isn’t awesome, but I presume it’s a lot less than some of you probably thought. And if we see a significant drop in a quarterback’s salary, perhaps it makes sense to start him (particularly in cash games), even when he’s missing his top receiving option.


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