Smug Fantasy Football

Rethinking Runningbacks Early

By Dustin Pritchard, 6.18.2013

On your average 12 team standard league with starting spots for 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, and 1 TE, K, and D, going RB-RB in rounds 1 and 2 is not a bad strategy.  In fact, it is often an effective one, and you can win your league going that route. Many people will be employing this strategy. We aren’t sheep though, and neither are you. With all the propaganda out there in the fantasy community that supports beginning your draft this way, you are likely to be swayed, but we want to help expand your view of the game and look at this common draft method, and the RB position in general, through a different lens.

It’s 2013. 25+ million people play Fantasy Football. It has become so popular and competitive that even the very casual players (your typical league doormats) are out there using the popular resources like Yahoo!, ESPN, Twitter, and Rotoworld  trying to gain league relevance. Many players are paying for expert advice as well ($1 billion industry in 2011). The game has changed. It’s not as much about information right now (because everybody has it) as it is about finding optimal situations and draft value.  Most managers will be looking to go RB-RB because that’s what they were told to do on the internet or in the Fantasy Football magazine they bought at the grocery store.  Doing the same thing the rest of your league mates do offers little value. The edge you seek is in zigging where others zag.

You might have read that there are few true workhorses at the RB position anymore and that you need to grab two early because there is such a big drop off after the top 15 or so. It is still important to grab your two starters within the first 4 or 5 rounds. We recommend looking for safety early and upside later. You might be under the impression grabbing two RBs with your first two picks is a very safe strategy.  Recent results suggest otherwise.

Using Average Draft Position data via Fantasy Football Calculator from 2009 to 2012, we looked at the Top 24 RBs drafted (listed in order) and compared that with where they finished (end of season rank in parentheses).

2009

Adrian Peterson (2), Maurice Jones-Drew (3), Michael Turner (22), Matt Forte (18), DeAngelo Williams (14), LaDanian Tomlinson (19), Steven Jackson (10), Chris Johnson (1), Steve Slaton (33), Frank Gore (5), Brandon Jacobs (26), Brian Westbrook (61), Clinton Portis (52), Marion Barber (21), Ryan Grant (8), Pierre Thomas (20), Ronnie Brown (32), Kevin Smith (26), Ray Rice (4), Darren McFadden (53), Marshawn Lynch (48), Joseph Addai (8), Reggie Bush (36), Larry Johnson (56)

Notables drafted after 24 (ADP/finish): Thomas Jones (25/6), Ricky Williams (58/7), Jonathan Stewart (33/11), Jamaal Charles (56/12), Rashard Mendenhall (42/13), Fred Jackson (45/15), Cedric Benson (32/16), Knowshon Moreno (26/17), Tim Hightower (41/23),  Jerome Harrison (NA/24)

2010

Chris Johnson (8), Adrian Peterson (7), Ray Rice (10), Maurice Jones-Drew (12), Frank Gore (21), Michael Turner (11), Steven Jackson (13), Ryan Mathews (28), Rashard Mendenhall (3), DeAngelo Williams (64), Shonn Greene (37), Jamaal Charles (2), Ryan Grant (122), Cedric Benson (17), Pierre Thomas (61), Arian Foster (1), LeSean McCoy (5), Jahvid Best (24), Matt Forte (6), Joseph Addai (45), Beanie Wells (60), Jonathan Stewart (39), Knowshon Moreno (16), Ronnie Brown (29)

Notables drafted after 24 (prerank ADP/finish): Peyton Hillis (60/4), Darren McFadden (42/9), Ahmad Bradshaw (27/14), Benjarvus Green-Ellis (NA/15), Fred Jackson (41/18), Mike Tolbert (NA/19), LaDanian Tomlinson (37/20), Brandon Jacobs (33/22), LaGarrette Blount (NA/23)

2011

Adrian Peterson (13), Ray Rice (1), Arian Foster (4), Chris Johnson (16), Jamaal Charles (97), LeSean McCoy (2), Rashard Mendenhall (19), Maurice Jones-Drew (3), Darren McFadden (34), Michael Turner (6), Frank Gore (11), Steven Jackson (10), Matt Forte (15), Peyton Hillis (34), LaGarrette Blount (29), Felix Jones (41), Shonn Greene (18), Ahmad Bradshaw (20), Jahvid Best (42), Ryan Mathews (7), Knowshon Moreno (77), Mark Ingram (45), DeAngelo Williams (26), Tim Hightower (61)

Notables drafted after 24 (prerank ADP/finish): Marshawn Lynch (30/5), Michael Bush (40/8), Darren Sproles (44/9), Reggie Bush (31/12), Fred Jackson (29/14), Beanie Wells (25/17), Willis McGahee (42/21), Mike Tolbert (32/22), Cedric Benson (27/23), Benjarvus Green-Ellis (28/24)

2012

Arian Foster (2), Ray Rice (6), LeSean McCoy (21), Darren McFadden (28), Chris Johnson (13), Matt Forte (12), DeMarco Murray (27), Maurice Jones-Drew (50), Marshawn Lynch (4), Jamaal Charles (8), Adrian Peterson (1), Fred Jackson (39), Ryan Matthews (29), Steven Jackson (16), Doug Martin (2), Trent Richardson (11), Darren Sproles (22), Michael Turner (17), Ahmad Bradshaw (18), Frank Gore (10), Willis McGahee (24), Benjarvus Green-Ellis (19), Reggie Bush (14), Stevan Ridley (9)

Notables drafted after 24 (prerank ADP/finish): Alfred Morris (48/5), C.J. Spiller (40/7), Shonn Greene (28/15), Mikel Leshoure (43/20), DeAngelo Williams (31/23)

If you take a look at the notables, you will see that in each of the past four seasons there were 5+ running backs drafted outside the position’s top 24 that provided the value of an RB2 or better, with 10 appearing in 3 of 4 years.

2009 – 10

2010 – 9

2011 – 10

2012 – 5

In addition, at least 5 of the top 12 RBs drafted in each year dissapointed as an RB2 or worse (an average of 5.75 per season or 48% of the top 12).  Obviously four seasons is a small sample size, but recent trends in the NFL are very important considering the aerial direction the league has moved to over the last decade.  Based on the data, 25%  of the RBs drafted inside the top 24 on average don’t perform up to their draft position, also meaning 25% of the top 24 RBs at season’s end will likely come from outside the top 24 RBs drafted. Also, at least 20% of the top 10 RBs by each season’s end were available after the Top 24. So much for the safety of drafting running backs early.

Jamaal Charles

Jamaal Charles

Taking a look at the current mid June ADP data, the top 24 RB (listed in order) are: Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, C.J. Spiller, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Trent Richardson, Alfred Morris, Steven Jackson, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Stevan Ridley, Frank Gore, Reggie Bush, DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, David Wilson, Montee Ball, Lamar Miller, Darren Sproles, Le’Veon Bell.

Recent history indicates about six of these guys will not meet expectations.   Due to either injury risk or inexperience and competition, we think DeMarco Murray and Montee Ball are the least likely to finish as an RB1 or RB2.  Some backs we like with the upside to perform as an RB2 or better currently going after top 24 are Chris Ivory, Ahmad Bradshaw, Rashard Mendenhall, Eddie Lacy, Andre Brown, Shane Vereen, Giovani Bernard, Jonathan Stewart, Isaiah Pead or Zac Stacy (depending on how the STL battle plays out).

Like we said before, we’re not against going RB RB. You should always keep all of your options open because the direction of the draft will often dictate your decision. In fact, we fully endorse making sure you nab a RB in round 1. There are a few RB-RB combinations we do really like depending on what position you draft out of.  For example, if you are drafting out of the 4th spot (probably the worst position) and you take Jamaal Charles there, we think pairing him with Chris Johnson or Stevan Ridley would be a very solid backfield and a nice foundation, but we wouldn’t draft any of those guys ahead of elite WR options Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, or Dez Bryant, who each have the potential to finish #1 at their position by season’s end, and we would also consider drafting Julio Jones ahead of those RBs as well.

We also checked out the total point trends at each power position (QB, WR, RB). Here’s a quick look at the difference in points scored between elite starters and replacement level players over the last 4 seasons.

Quarterback

2009 – QB1 Aaron Rodgers 343, QB12 David Garrard 234, QB13 Kurt Warner 231, QB24 Vince Young 141

2010 – QB1 Aaron Rodgers 283, QB12 Carson Palmer 219, QB13 Joe Flacco 217, QB24 Shaun Hill 150

2011 – QB1 Aaron Rodgers 397, QB12 Ben Roethlisberger 226, QB13 Ryan Fitzpatrick 224, QB24 Rex Grossman 157

2012 – QB1 Drew Brees 337, QB12 Andy Dalton 239, QB13 Josh Freeman 233, QB24 Ryan Tannehill 171

Wide Receiver

2009 – WR1 Andre Johnson 212, WR13 Marques Colston 162, WR25 Percy Harvin 128, WR 36 Roy Williams 101

2010 – WR1 Dwayne Bowe 194, WR13 Terrell Owens 148, WR 25 Braylon Edwards 118, WR36 Nate Washington 100.9

2011 – WR1 Calvin Johnson 265, WR13 Brandon Marshall 159, WR25 Brandon Lloyd 127, WR36 Plaxico Burress 109

2012 – WR1 Calvin Johnson 214, WR13 Victor Cruz 162, WR25 Mike Wallace 123, WR36 Brian Hartline 105

Runningback

2009 – RB1 Chris Johnson 347, RB13, Rashard Mendenhall 185, RB24 Jerome Harrison 150

2010 – RB1 Arian Foster 317, RB13 Steven Jackson 186, RB24 Jahvid Best 137

2011 – RB1 Ray Rice 301, RB13 Adrian Peterson 178, RB24 Benjarvus Green-Ellis 148

2012 – RB1 Adrian Peterson 297, RB13 Chris Johnson 162, RB24 Willis McGahee 106

QB and WR point totals haven’t changed much through the last four years, sans 2010, while RB points dropped significantly last season.  Despite this there remains a high demand for runningbacks early. Maybe players feel like they have a good handle on the position. After all only 5 consensus top 24 backs last season finished as RB25 or worse.  Never get too comfortable with your opinions; always keep an open mind. 17 RBs are coming off the board through 2 rounds and 24 in the middle of the 4th round. This significantly differs from the trend of 2009-2012 which had the top 24 RBs consistently going off the board in the middle of the 5th round.

Drew Brees

Drew Brees

Nothing extraordinary happened at the RB position in 2012 to demand this kind of jump. Like we found, point totals were actually down. Yet the consensus RB 24 is going a full round earlier this off-season than in any of the past four, which likely has more to do with the typical consensus of available fantasy football draft advice this off-season.  We challenge the status quo here.  Because they are going higher than usual, RBs are shaping up to be an unattractive option in the 3rd or early 4th round. It’s not like the talent pool has been depleted.  There are easily 28 very startable RBs and more behind them an injury away from solid production.

Rather than reaching for a mid range RB2 in the 3rd, why not consider two candidates that will likely lead all players in total scoring: QBs Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.  As you saw, Rodgers finished as the #1 QB 2009-2011, with Brees topping the list in 2012.  Both are as close to a lock for consistent, elite production as there is, and with Brees at an ADP of 25 overall (top of the 3rd round) and Rodgers’ ADP at 20 overall (mid to late 2nd) you’d be wise to consider them if they are there at the top of the 3rd.  If you miss out on them, look for Peyton Manning (ADP35) or Tom Brady (ADP43) in the middle of the 4th or early 5th round.

Our main point here is this: there is more than one way to win your fantasy football league.  When you do your draft in August, remember to go into it with an open mind.  Don’t force it, look for value where your league mates leave it and don’t get too attached to runningbacks early, a quarter of them taken before the 5th round will disappoint you anyways. Elite QBs and WRs are being underrated. Look for safe elites early.

For more sage wisdom, follow us on Twitter @smugff

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2 comments on “Rethinking Runningbacks Early

  1. Pingback: 2013 Pre-Season Fantasy Football WR Rankings | GET REAL FOOTBALL

  2. Pingback: Week 15 Flex: Garcon, Alexander, McFadden, Wilson? | Bridal Services

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