Standard drafts can be broken up into three phases: the early rounds (1-5), middle rounds (6-9), and late rounds (10+). This may seem like an arbitrary distinction, but there are reasons for these groupings.
In the early rounds, you primarily find established players who have proven on-field success … unless your name is Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It is when you hit the 6th round that those established players have dried up.
This is the rubicon into a wasteland of much-hyped sleepers and breakout-worthy pass catchers. Right now, this rubicon is marked by Chris Godwin — an established player who has proven top-end performance but is dealing with a serious injury. This makes sense as this injury puts his performance this year into question, yet he is still being drafted high because of what he has proven on the field. I expect Godwin’s ADP to change, but the line will remain the same.
After the 5th round, there are no great established RBs or WRs that you can bank on with top-end upside. There is so much potential, but very few provide the boon you need for your roster.
When looking at the top 15 running backs and wide receivers over the past five years in PPR format, only 19% are drafted after the 5th round. This comes out to two RBs and WRs each after this critical point in the draft. Compare that to the first five rounds where you can find, on average, 5 x top-15 RB/WR per round. One can auto-draft those first five rounds and have a good chance at landing league-winning talent.
It is what happens after the fifth round that requires precise dart throws. Again, this is just for running backs and wide receivers, and not the other position groups. I want to focus on them here because they are the most important positions in standard formats. Your team is stuck in the mud without at least a couple of these high-end players.
When looking at the top 15 running backs and wide receivers over the past five years in PPR format, only 19% are drafted after the 5th round.
This begs the question: how do we find these top-15 players after the fifth round? The good news is that there are some similarities that these players have shared over the past five years. Let’s start with wide receivers.
There have been twelve wide receivers in the past five years that have finished in the top-15 after being drafted after round 5. This amounts to just over two of these positional players every year!
This is a pretty random group of receivers—there are rookies, players entering their sixth year in the league, possession receivers, players with high ADOT, and ones with low ADOT—but the one thing they have in common is that they were the lead wide receiver for their team, either by winning the job or by injury to the teams’ other top receiver. None of these receivers came from a top-5 offense, and yet they all topped 100 targets, 1000 yards, and at least six touchdowns.
While there is one kind of wide receiver that breaks into the top 15, two kinds of running backs can end up in this range: the team’s lead RB and the pass-catching specialist. There have been ten running backs that have solidified their role as the lead RB on their teams either through injury or through competition, and all but one of those players (Miles Sanders) scored at least 10 touchdowns.
The pass-catching specialists, on the other hand, are buoyed by the fact that the other pass-catchers on the team are weak, and therefore play callers must rely on the backfield. They do not lead the backfield in carriers per se, their talents are used on screens and underneath routes, and outlet passes. Of the six RBs that fit this mold, all of them had at least 90 targets and were at least the de facto WR3 on their team, if not higher in the pecking order.
With these benchmarks set we can start determining which players have a shot to land in the top 15, and the ones that don’t. We all expect big numbers from players like Gabriel Davis (Bills) and DeVonta Smith (Eagles), but unless an injury befalls Stefon Diggs or AJ Brown, we know it’s near-impossible for them to crack the top 15.
However, there are players like Rashod Bateman (Ravens), Darnell Mooney (Bears), and Brandin Cooks (Texans) who are already their team’s lead receiver. It is this group that has a better chance of cracking the top 15.
For running backs, look at teams with weak WR rooms. This is why Tony Pollard (Cowboys) and Kareem Hunt (Browns) could be steals late in drafts—there is only one good wide receiver on the team, followed by weak/unproven depth. Play callers may rely more heavily on targets from the backfield to make up for this lack.
Two kinds of running backs can end up in the top 15: the team’s lead RB and the pass-catching specialist.
There are also a handful of backs that can not only win the starting job but could be in line for 10 or more touchdowns. Rashaad Penny (Seahawks) is going in the 8th round right now, and every game in his career that he’s had at least 12 handoffs, he’s scored a touchdown. That’s not a lot of handoffs on what’s going to be a run-centric offense.
Damien Harris (Patriots) is going in the 6th, fresh off a year he just scored 15 touchdowns. He has as good of a chance to score double-digit scores as any other running back this year, no matter where they’re going in the draft.
This is not foolproof. There will always be outliers such as Miles Sanders who squeak into the top 15. This also does not discount teams’ WR2s who could exceed expectations at draft cost. You are just not going to see a league-winning upside. Injuries are varied and unpredictable, so there is always the chance for a surprise on this list next year.
Depth charts change throughout the season too. Very few expected the breakout season Justin Jefferson had in 2020, let alone outpacing his teammate Adam Thielen, whom everyone assumed was the unquestioned lead receiver for the Vikings. But if you want to go with high-upside in the middle and late rounds, you must look for these qualities in a WR or RB. So often it is these players who catapult you to a fantasy championship.