Drafting Rookie RBs in the “RB Dead Zone” (Fantasy Football)

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The busiest draft week of the year is upon fantasy managers at last, and it’s time to fine-tune that draft strategy!

One of the toughest spots of the draft to prepare for is the difficult “RB dead zone” – traditionally Rounds 4 to 8 – where RBs don’t return their value at a much higher rate than the preceding rounds. Ahead of 2022 drafts, we looked at drafting rookie RBs in the “RB dead zone” and why it was a good investment for fantasy managers over veteran players in the same draft range. Let’s take another look at why taking rookies through these middle rounds is the strategy to take!

Dead Zone RBs Data

To best look at how RBs perform for fantasy managers, I took the ADP for half-point PPR leagues since 2018 and charted the rookie and veteran RBs drafted in Rounds 4-8 along with their finish on the season. 

Here’s a look at the RBs drafted in the dead zone in 2022:

Player ADP RB Taken RB Finish RB Delta
David Montgomery 4.03 19 23 -4
J.K. Dobbins 4.03 20 52 -32
Elijah Mitchell 4.06 21 74 -53
Breece Hall 4.08 22 42 -20
Josh Jacobs 4.11 23 3 20
AJ Dillon 5.01 24 25 -1
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 5.08 25 46 -21
Damien Harris 5.11 26 48 -22
Miles Sanders 6.02 27 13 14
Rashaad Penny 6.04 28 67 -39
Kareem Hunt 6.09 29 40 -11
Tony Pollard 6.09 30 7 23
Chase Edmonds 6.10 31 58 -27
Dameon Pierce 6.11 32 27 5
Devin Singletary 6.11 33 24 9
Rhamondre Stevenson 7.05 34 11 23
Melvin Gordon 8.01 35 55 -20
James Cook 8.07 36 45 -9
Cordarrelle Patterson 8.07 37 32 5
Nyheim Hines 8.10 38 65 -27
Kenneth Walker III 8.11 39 16 23

As a whole, RBs taken in this range of the draft just don’t return their value. Of the 21 RBs taken in Rounds 4 through 8 in 2022, only eight of them finished higher at the position than they were taken at. Whenever we break down rookies compared to veterans who fall into the dead zone, historically that’s where fantasy managers can find a difference-maker for their rosters.

Rookies Return ADP Rookies Top-24 Finish
2022 2 of 4 50% 2022 1 of 4 25%
2021 2 of 3 67% 2021 1 of 3 33%
2020 3 of 5 60% 2020 3 of 5 60%
2019 2 of 4 50% 2019 1 of 4 25%
2018 1 of 3 33% 2018 0 of 3 0%
Total 10 of 19 53% Total 7 of 19 37%
Veterans Outperform ADP Veterans Top-24 Finishes
2022 6 of 17 35% 2022 6 of 17 35%
2021 7 of 19 37% 2021 6 of 19 31%
2020 4 of 16 25% 2020 2 of 16 13%
2019 5 of 15 33% 2019 4 of 15 27%
2018 9 of 17 52% 2018 7 of 17 41%
Total 31 of 84 37% Total 25 of 84 30%

Since 2018, there have been 19 rookies taken in the RB dead zone. More than half of those RBs finished higher than they were drafted. The 2022 rookie RB class held this percentage true and probably should have been even higher had it not been for the injury to Breece Hall that cost him a large portion of the year.

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When we’re talking about the chance of getting a top-24 RB, rookies still have the edge over veterans drafted in the dead zone, but the margin could easily have been much larger if Breece Hall and Dameon Pierce were able to finish the season healthy. If we include Hall and Pierce in the top-24 numbers for dead zone rookies, the return for a top-24 back jumps to 47% since 2018.

The draft strategy here seems to remain true as it was in 2022: If you’re taking an RB in the dead zone, make it a rookie.

Let’s take a look at rookie RBs in the dead zone who may be worth the gamble in 2023:

Jahmyr Gibbs (DET)

ADP 3.12 

Technically Jahmyr Gibbs is going just a pick ahead of the RB dead zone, but there’s a chance he falls into this category in your drafts. The Lions picked Gibbs with the 12th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft so there should be plenty of work coming his way as a rookie. Gibbs brings a great pass-catching profile to the table which will bring even more value in PPR formats. Andy has a lot of faith in the rookie, naming him a “My Guy” for 2023, and Ryan Devaney recently laid out the argument for him to be a league winner. Even if Gibbs ends up splitting the running work with veteran David Montgomery, he will easily outperform his current ADP and can be a huge boost in fantasy lineups.

Zach Charbonnet (SEA)

ADP 9.03

The Seahawks drafting a Day 2 RB in consecutive years in the NFL Draft may have put a damper on what many saw as a great RB prospect in Zach Charbonnet, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be an effective rookie in 2023. Charbonnet has the size at 6’1” and 220 which translates well to the NFL game, and pairs it with a collegiate profile that suggests he can carry the load for an NFL team. The juiciest part of Charbonnet’s game is his receiving profile, where he had a 12.6% reception share at UCLA in his final season. Charbonnet is currently sitting just outside of the RB dead zone, but at that draft cost could be a difference-maker for fantasy managers, especially if he finds himself as the sole back in Seattle at any point in 2023.

De’Von Achane (MIA)

ADP 11.03

It’s been no secret that the Dolphins have wanted to add another RB throughout the summer, but haven’t been able to land the big name they’re looking for which can only mean good things for rookie De’Von Achane. Miami took Achane in the 3rd round of the 2023 draft to battle for starting touches with Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert. There are plenty of high-value snaps to be had in the Dolphins offense shown by the combined 10 top-24 RB finishes between Mostert and Wilson in 2022. With Wilson headed to the IR to start the season, Achane could be in for an earlier increased workload and could see a small increase in ADP nearer to the dead zone. Achane is lighting fast and profiles as an RB who will be able to succeed in Miami’s high-powered offense if given the opportunity.

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