Strategy for points-per-reception fantasy football leagues

Pass-catching running backs like Christian McCaffrey see a massive boost in value in PPR leagues. Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Are you -- or is your league -- considering a switch to PPR scoring this season? If so, here's a quick primer on what you need to know.

PPR (point per reception) scoring is as self-explanatory as it sounds: We take ESPN's yardage-and-touchdown-angled fantasy football scoring and add an award of one point per player reception. This helps elevate running back, wide receiver and tight end scoring within a closer range to that of quarterbacks, who routinely dominate non-PPR scoring systems.

That's not a linear correction, however, because certain positions and certain individual players tend to accrue a greater number of receptions than others. It's important to identify where those pockets of value lie in a PPR league compared with non-PPR leagues.

Ho-hum, the quarterbacks

First, and most obviously, quarterbacks shift the least in value between PPR and non-PPR scoring systems. You might've guessed that, as the position collectively has caught only 105 passes since the beginning of the 2001 season, an average of 6.2 catches per season, and only two in 2017 alone. That's from the entire position.

Such little shift in scoring among quarterbacks means minimal -- and practically zero -- change in terms of a quarterback's value relative to replacement value at this position. You might have heard this referred to as VBD, or the "value based drafting" method of player valuation. A 300-point quarterback in a non-PPR league in which a replacement-caliber quarterback (or the first option off your waiver wire) would provide 190 fantasy points will almost assuredly be a 300-point quarterback in a PPR league that has a 190-point replacement option.

What changes, however, is the enhanced value of an upper-tier running back or wide receiver. As a result of those positions enjoying more competitive fantasy point totals from top to bottom than they do in non-PPR leagues, it's more important to secure a premium player at either (or both) positions.

We'll dig a little deeper into that in a bit, but be aware that the leading seasonal scorer by position in a PPR league in the past half-decade averaged 376.23 at quarterback, 371.20 at running back and 342.34 at wide receiver, all within range of one another. The difference in draft strategy between the three positions, however, is that it's going to be substantially easier to find a 190-point-seasonal-scoring quarterback on a one-week-pickup basis than it is to find the running back or wide receiver with that level of production.

In other words, if "wait on quarterbacks" is your recommended mantra in non-PPR leagues -- a case I've made plenty of times in the past -- it's all the more apt a strategy in PPR scoring.

Movers and shakers in PPR: QBs


Fifty! It's the magic number

You'll notice I have yet to address wide receivers, despite the fact that they're the most logical benefactors, since they are, well, receivers. Running backs, however, are arguably the most important players impacted by PPR scoring.

The reason is that the very best running backs in PPR leagues are almost always those with strong receiving skills. In the past 17 seasons, the top overall PPR scorer was a running back 10 times, a quarterback five times and a wide receiver twice. In three of those five seasons during which a quarterback led, the top-scoring running back outscored the top-scoring wide receiver.

Expanding that to the top-five running backs in PPR scoring, 71 of the 85 since (and including) the 2001 season managed at least 40 catches, and all 80 top-five-finishing running backs averaged 57 catches in the season in question. That's as compelling evidence as any that your goal with a first-round running-back pick in a PPR league is at least 50 receptions. In 2017, 14 running backs reached that threshold, 11 of whom managed a top-25 positional finish in PPR fantasy points. In addition, 10 of the top 11 PPR scorers at the position managed at least 50 catches.

Including the lower tiers of the running-back position in the discussion, the impact of PPR scoring on weekly player consistency is another critical factor.

Consider: Of the 14 running backs to total at least 120 receptions in the past three seasons combined -- Duke Johnson Jr. (188), Theo Riddick (186), Le'Veon Bell (184), Devonta Freeman (163), James White (156), Mark Ingram II (154), LeSean McCoy (141), DeMarco Murray (136), Melvin Gordon (132), Giovani Bernard (131), Todd Gurley II (128), Bilal Powell (128), Chris Thompson (123) and David Johnson (122) -- 12 posted at least as many "start"-worthy weekly fantasy point totals in PPR as in non-PPR scoring, with Bell and Powell the two exceptions (each had one more such game in non-PPR).

In addition, 10 of these players -- Bell, McCoy, Ingram, Duke Johnson Jr., Riddick, Murray, Freeman, David Johnson, Bernard and Gurley -- ranked among the 20 most consistent (using proximity of each player's weekly scores to his three-year, per-game average) running backs in fantasy football during that three-year span.

The reason for this is the greater projectability of weekly receptions compared with touchdowns. Receptions have much stronger week-over-week correlation, mainly because they're much more a product of a player's role, whereas touchdowns are more influenced by team and game situation.

Movers and shakers in PPR: RBs

Christian McCaffrey, Duke Johnson Jr., Tarik Cohen, Thompson, Riddick and White are the five running backs who garner the greatest increase in fantasy value in PPR leagues compared with non-PPR, where (in the latter) they're much more ordinary selections. The difference in formats can mean as many as five rankings spots within the position, if not more.

Bell, David Johnson, Alvin Kamara and Gurley are also significantly more attractive picks in PPR than non-PPR leagues, even if their specific rankings might not indicate it (they're all highly ranked in both). They're merely stronger picks relative to the other positions, due to gaining more value relative to replacement.

Among potential breakthrough picks in PPR in 2018 are Kerryon Johnson, Devontae Booker and Nyheim Hines, all of whom are more appealing selections in that format.

LeGarrette Blount is likely the least valuable RB in PPR versus non-PPR scoring, though Jay Ajayi, Alex Collins, Jordan Howard and Marshawn Lynch also belong in that conversation.

Viva zero-RB strategy?

It's a misconception that PPR scoring mandates a wide receiver-heavy draft approach. After all the hubbub about the "zero-RB strategy" in 2016-17 -- which stipulated that you wouldn't select a single running back with your first three picks, instead opting for a fill-on-the-cheap and/or weekly matchups strategy at the position -- it's important not to get hooked into that thinking if you're in your first season of a PPR league.

Yes, of course Antonio Brown is an excellent early-first-round PPR pick, thanks to five consecutive seasons of at least 100 catches and an NFL-leading -- by a margin of 101 -- 582 receptions during that span. In fact, he is already tied for second all-time in 100-reception campaigns, and he is one season away from tying Brandon Marshall's record (Brown is 30 years old). He is not, however, an automatic choice for the No. 1 spot -- and isn't even a candidate for me.

While Brown is plenty capable of a return to the 350-point plateau (he scored a whopping 388.2 fantasy points in 2015, 310.3 in 2016 and has led the position with 300-plus in each of the past four seasons), the reason he's this valuable is his consistency and highest-in-football likelihood of another 300-point campaign.

Using year-over-year returns, it takes at least 320 PPR fantasy points before a wide receiver's value relative to replacement justifies his selection as a top-three overall pick. Four wide receivers -- Brown, Julio Jones (375.1), Marshall (339.2) and DeAndre Hopkins (331.1) -- reached that threshold in 2015; another, Odell Beckham Jr. (319.3), narrowly missed, which is why so many fantasy owners chased the wide receivers in 2016 drafts. Not one, however, got there in either 2016 or 2017, and the only one who came within even 10 points of the 320 mark was Brown last year.

The true impact of PPR scoring upon the wide receiver position is rewarding volume. Of the 22 receivers who have scored at least 320 fantasy points in a season since (and including) 2001, all but five caught at least 100 passes, none caught fewer than 93, and the group averaged 113. In addition, only five of the 66 wide receivers who caught at least 100 passes during that same time span finished with fewer than 250 PPR fantasy points.

This means shifting your focus somewhat toward role over skill, as big-play receivers who garner so-so yearly targets -- hello, Sammy Watkins -- often fail to find themselves ranked so generously in PPR scoring. Receivers who spend a healthy chunk of their time in the slot often tend to produce healthy PPR seasonal scores: 22 of the 34 wide receivers who managed a 240-point season (that's an average of 15 fantasy points in a 16-game season) from 2015 to 2017 did so while accruing at least 20 percent of their catches out of the slot.

Movers and shakers in PPR: WRs

Perhaps no wide receiver in football benefits more from PPR scoring than Jarvis Landry, the league's leader in receptions last season but a player with only 17 touchdowns to his credit the past three campaigns combined, though his trade to the Cleveland Browns does call into question somewhat his target total. Jamison Crowder, Julian Edelman, Larry Fitzgerald and Golden Tate, however, could give Landry a run for that crown, as all are significantly more attractive picks when credited for each of their catches.

On the lower tiers, Danny Amendola, Eric Decker and Sterling Shepard are much closer to weekly lineup plays in PPR than in non-PPR scoring formats.

Big-play wide receivers encompass practically all of the players at this position who suffer in PPR formats. Besides Watkins, Brandin Cooks, Tyreek Hill, Marvin Jones Jr. and JuJu Smith-Schuster are among those for whom you'd pay a greater premium in non-PPR formats.

Don't ignore the tight ends

Tight end can be a tricky position to address in PPR leagues. Just as in non-PPR leagues, tight ends tend to blend together after the first five or six are off the draft board. A strategy of waiting is therefore equally wise, but don't overlook the fact that since the position overall catches more passes than running backs, the "big three" at the tight end position still warrants a look in Rounds 3-4.

What changes in PPR scoring is the advantage that a heavily involved tight end gains relative to one who is more touchdown-dependent, such as Jimmy Graham, Tyler Eifert or O.J. Howard, which elevates the top six-eight names at the position more significantly ahead of the rest of the pack.

Rob Gronkowski also has less of a stake to the No. 1 spot at the position in a PPR league rather than non-PPR, thanks to a host of pass-catching tight ends led by the other two members of the "big three," Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz, both of whom are likely to finish with the greater number of receptions. Other pass-catching tight ends such as Delanie Walker, Greg Olsen, Evan Engram and Jordan Reed should also put forth more competitive point totals in PPR scoring, bringing them closer to Gronkowski, et al.

Movers and shakers in PPR: TEs

Besides Kelce, Ertz, Walker, Olsen, Engram and Reed, Jack Doyle probably has the widest value differential between PPR and non-PPR leagues, having finished seventh at the position in the PPR but ninth in non-PPR last season. With Jason Witten now retired, Charles Clay and Benjamin Watson inherit the throne as the "old reliables" at the position, players who are worthwhile fallback picks in PPR if you miss out on the big names.

Tandem tight-end situations such as those in Tampa Bay (Howard and Cameron Brate) and Indianapolis (Doyle and Eric Ebron) bear watching in PPR, due to the likelihood of the tight-end target pie being divided up.

In-season strategy

Though many of the same lessons apply to in-season management in PPR leagues, statistical floors take on more meaning in this format as you fill out your weekly lineup. Whereas in non-PPR leagues, final lineup decisions might come down to the likelihood of a touchdown or how favorable a little-involved-player's matchup is, in a PPR league a player's floor is more important.

Remember that weekly scores in a PPR league are guaranteed to be higher -- perhaps by as many as 30 fantasy points in an ESPN league with a standard lineup (two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex). Making up that difference requires as much attention to weekly upside as it does to avoiding devastating doughnuts or low scores. When the league's projected points-per-lineup position are higher, risk-taking becomes more dangerous.

For that reason, it's often wise to keep a PPR-angled player, like a Cohen or Crowder, on hand to serve as your flex-play fallback when your leading men face challenging matchups that cap their points upside.

Keep that same lesson in mind on the trade market. Scooping up a cheap, pass-catching option is often a good idea as a complementary piece to balance out a deal.

If you're looking to change your league to PPR this season, it's easy: In your "League Settings" page, click on the "Scoring" tab, and then look for the "Load Scoring Settings" under the "ESPN Scoring Settings" section. You'll want to change that menu drop-down to "PPR Standard" or "PPR Fractional," depending on whether you want to award fractional points for player yardage.