Are We Good at Drafting Mid-Round RBs? (Fantasy Football)

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In fantasy football, analysts and managers are often more open to “I was almost right” scenarios but reject alternatives such as “I was almost wrong”. Imagine if someone looked at your rankings and suggested after the season you were almost wrong on that one. 

Gasp.

I intend to write more on the psychology of approaching drafting this offseason because I, like many, am often far too confident in my forecasting abilities than maybe I would like to suggest.

We often assume that when a drafting decision is followed by a good outcome, the decision was also good, which isn’t always true. Perhaps in 2019, you struck gold with mid-round RBs like Aaron Jones (3.06) or Derrick Henry (4.06) and you are now sold for life on finding the value in the middle rounds. However, I’ve found that successful drafters are not usually so open to the idea that they didn’t entirely earn their success. We like to boast about the process when sometimes the wrong process produces a good outcome.

So I put this question to the test: how successful are we in assessing middle-round RBs? How often do we hit or miss?

As Jason referenced on Thursday’s Ten Things to Remember for 2021 podcast, drafting high-end RBs isn’t a set-in-stone strategy but it is a tried-and-true fantasy battle plan. If you were to pass on early RBs, what does the data dictate?

Method to the Madness

You might see a flood of numbers in front of you but let me break down how simple this process was:

  • Look at all of the RBs taken in Rounds 3-7 over the last five years. We start with 116 RBs in our data set. I was tempted to go for a decade or more but for this first piece, let’s take five years and run with it.
  • Compile their ADP based on historical Bestball and FFPC drafts. At the Fantasy Footballers, we find that as the best collaboration of ADP as drafters have money on the line in those drafts.
  • Compare their ADP with the fantasy finishes (as found in the historical consistency charts for JointheFoot.com members)

After aligning those three numbers (that honestly anyone could find), figure out the difference and organize these figures into a couple of different categories. These six are by no means are the only “buckets” but I thought they were easy enough to understand.

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R3 R4 R5 R6 R7
League Winner 11+ or Top-10 13+ or Top-10 15+ or Top-10 17+ or Top-10 20+ or Top-10
Huge Win 6 to 10 8 to 12 10 to 14 12 to 16 14 to 19
Hit 1 to 5 1 to 7 1 to 9 1 to 11 1 to 13
Miss 0 to -5 0 to -8 0 to -10 0 to -12 0 to -14
Big Whiff -6 to -14 -9 to -19 -11 to -24 -13 to -29 -15 to -34
Landmine -15 -20 -25 -30 -35

A couple of quick notes before we dive into the data:

  • In redraft leagues, consistency needs to be just as much a factor in start/sit decisions and we detail those metrics in our RB TRUTH series. “Improving on ADP” isn’t necessarily the best measurement for a successful season.
  • For BestBall leagues, this information is gold as you are simply trying to maximize end-of-season value.
  • I took some liberties for a few fantasy finishes adjusting to the overall scoring for that specific year. For example, in 2016, Frank Gore finished as the RB12 which sounds amazing but he was more of a compiler than an actual league winner. Instead, I placed him in the “huge win” category instead as he didn’t quite meet the threshold of a top-10 RB.
  • Sifting through injured players was a tricky proposition; nevertheless, because these players (only four) were factored into actual August/September drafts, I decided to keep them in the data set.

For each of the last five seasons, I’ll visually show you where RBs went in Rounds 3-7 (because of the colors people!) and organize them in Boom (League Winner, Huge Win & Hit) and Bust (Miss, Big Whiff & Landmine) categories. I’ll also stroll down memory lane and offer a couple of quick thoughts on a few of the names and thought processes that went into ADP each year.

2020: Rookies Won the Day… Eventually

As Jason referenced on the Ten Things to Remember, 2020 was a rough year for all of us especially if you went all-in on mid-round RBs. But there were a few fresh faces that proved true in the end… if you made it to your fantasy playoffs.

Boom (34.8%): The rookie RBs from 2020 stand out the most although you had to bide your time with them as Mike mentioned. In redraft leagues, players like J.K. Dobbins and D’Andre Swift likely were dropped by Week 5 and you had to wait it out before they broke through. Even Jonathan Taylor‘s RB6 finish looks impressive when you consider he was caught up in a timeshare for much of the season. Ronald Jones II also provided a solid return based on his ADP before giving way to Leonard Fournette in the playoffs.

Bust (65.2%): 2020 fell in line with the rest of the data set inching close to that 2/3rd bust rate. The 3rd and 4th rounds were especially brutal. If you were a team that banked on some former workhorse veterans (James Conner, Todd Gurley II, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Mark Ingram), you likely were left holding the bag at the end of the season.

2019: League Winners Galore

This is the type of year that fantasy managers long for. It tantalizes us throughout the off-season and also seems like a bit of an outlier when we compare with the rest of our data. But 2019 sticks out like a sore thumb when you consider how depressed WR scoring was across the board.

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Boom (54.2%): That is an insanely high hit rate and likely the reason so many RBs were pushed up in ADP in 2020. We swing like a pendulum year-to-year. Aaron Jones and Derrick Henry weren’t just direct hits… those dudes scorched the earth especially in the TD department. But as you’ll notice, Mark Ingram shows up a couple more times as a mid-round value each year. Austin Ekeler‘s ADP is a bit deceiving as news of Melvin Gordon III‘s holdout (remember that?) drove him up the boards and closer to the 5th round come early September. Regardless, he was a league winner in PPR leagues. Beyond the “league winners”, we had a healthy number of hits that should’ve encouraged drafters in Bestball formats

Bust (45.8%): Kerryon Johnson looks like the giant stain on this season (RIP Jason) and I felt the pain as I drafted him in my main keeper league that year. But overall, you won’t find a more tame year for busts than 2019.

2018: Hope You Made it Out Alive

Woof. This year was an absolute trainwreck if you felt the urge to skip on RBs early.  Looking for a league winner? No-one. Natta. Zilch.

Boom (33.3%): It’s a dry and barren land. Most of the RB hits were marginal at best with the biggest jumps in ADP being predictably the guys taken in Rounds 6 & 7.

Bust (66.7%): Heck, one-third (!) of the RBs taken in Rounds 3-7 were landmines! Meaning, these guys destroyed your squad with the most infamous being rookie Royce Freeman and hype man Alex Collins. But the emphasis on 2018 shouldn’t be on just the misses in the mid-rounds but what you missed out on if you passed on RB in Rounds 1 & 2. Todd Gurley II put up an all-time type of season and Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey decided they wanted to essentially play WR as well for fantasy. It wasn’t just the bust rate but the opportunity cost of passing on early RBs.

2017: Don’t Wait Too Long

We must take RB scoring as part of a larger narrative because what these players accomplish doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Take 2017: a death sentence for passing production in the NFL. Folks it was bad… We saw the lowest passing yards, passing TDs, and total WR fantasy points in more than a decade. This made early RBs a must.

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Boom (33.3%): Hey! Our boy Mark Ingram is here again! Ok but other than the disrespect Ingram received annually, this is another year where a couple of RBs maintained value and a few jumped into the top-10.

Bust (66.7%): Ah… Isaiah Crowell. I’ve taken a lot of stances over the years but probably the strongest feeling I had as a fantasy writer was The Case Against Isaiah Crowell. Beyond the Crow, there was so much value lost in the middle rounds on these RBs. As I mentioned, because WR scoring was down, it made the high-end RBs (Gurley, Bell, Kamara) essential to winning titles.

2016: Remember Way Back When?

Ok, now we go way back when and 2016 ADP, if you remember, was a reaction to the previous year’s volatility at the RB position. 2015 had Devonta Freeman and Adrian Peterson as the top-2 RBs with multiple guys going down to injury. Zero-RB became a thing for the first time. There’s a reason we see the RB11 here in the 3rd round as WRs were all the rage. (To compare, RB11 was drafted at the 2.02 in 2020). So it looked like there was perceived value to be had if you hammered away at WR early and then snagged your RBs in the middle to late rounds hoping for league winners. Did it bear out?

Boom (30.4%): Through the first five rounds, there were some relatively nice gains especially if you went WR-WR-WR early and jumped in on DeMarco Murray or Melvin Gordon III.

Bust (69.6%): Ah the nostalgia! There are probably some names on here you haven’t thought about in a while and yet there was a time where you thought about them all the time. Many of the cheaper veterans like Arian Foster (throwback to when Andy sang Goodbye My Lover in his fantasy eulogy) were dust at this point. But in terms of success rate, it was much more of a big whiff of a stale fart than a flood of PPR value from proposed Zero RB candidates in the middle rounds.

Conclusion

If you stuck with me through all of the colors and the RBs of yesteryear, there is a fairly solid rule of thumb that emerges: 2/3rds of the RBs in the middle rounds are going to hurt your team. Maybe you take that as a pessimistic outlook when you can just as easily spin that statistic to point out that 33 percent of these guys are going to gain value and give you a leg up on the competition.

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If you wanted a clean round-by-round comparison of the last five years, here is a nifty chart to end our time together class.

R3 R4 R5 R6 R7 Total R3-7 %
League Winner 2 3 3 1 2 11 9.65%
Huge Win 2 0 1 2 5 10 8.77%
Hit 7 3 4 3 3 26 17.54%
Miss 4 5 3 4 5 22 19.30%
Big Whiff 4 2 5 1 3 15 13.16%
Landmine 9 4 6 6 5 30 26.32%

But remember, we tend to overemphasize our abilities to forecast. Stay water but go into a draft knowing that mid-round RBs don’t usually work out.

Comments

Jason's mom says:

Lol way to go fantasy footballers! Keep pushing the draft early rbs narrative on the public, ill keep winning the ship with Adams, Ridley, Jefferson, and Montgomery, and Swift as my rbs. The YOU HAVE TO GET A RB EARLY strategy is a fluke, and every year, people don’t learn. The article says the rate at which the mid round rbs flop is significant, so that’s why you have to invest in them early. When I’m actuality you don’t have to invest anything at all on them until the 5th round. Nobody is losing their fantasy league in the 5th round, but you can definitely lose it in the first 2 rounds when buying this narrative. Its actually really simple, rookie rbs are getting better every year, you just have to target the breakout players, and not go in with a mindset that you need 2 rbs out of the first 3 rounds.

Josh McCormick says:

Have you done a similar analysis for any of the other positions in the mid-rounds? It would be great to know how mid-round RBs compare to the hit-rate of mid-round WRs, TEs, etc. in order to gauge the wisdom of each draft strategy. I’ve heard The Ballers talk about trying to draft mid-round WRs and I’m wondering if the stats actually bear that out, or if the hit-rate is similar between positions.

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