Drafting Rookies in the “RB Deadzone” (Fantasy Football)

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Redraft season is fast approaching, and as a fantasy manager, you’re busy putting together the best strategy to destroy your league-mates in the 2022 season.

During the June 23rd episode of the podcast, Mike and Jason checked the ADP of several players, including Jets rookie running back, Breece Hall, who is currently being drafted in the “RB Deadzone”. 

For years now, the fantasy community has subscribed to the idea of a “Running Back Deadzone”. If you’re not familiar with the theory, it generally states that RBs drafted in Rounds 4-8 of redraft leagues have a much lower chance of returning their value. Jason briefly broke down the idea in the ADP Risers/Fallers segment.

All of this talk raised the question:  How much does the RB Deadzone apply to rookies?

Why Rookies?

Typically running backs drafted in the RB Deadzone are there for a reason due to uncertainty in their role or volume they’ll receive from that backfield. That doesn’t mean that you can’t find valuable pieces in those rounds, but the depth of wide-receivers through the middle rounds can outweigh the ambiguity these backfields tend to hold.

Likewise, rookies are a little different simply because we’ve never actually seen them on the NFL field before. While there’s still some volatility in how many snaps they’ll be seeing or when they’ll actually start to see the field, that uncertainty does leave the ceiling (and floor) a little more broad in the range of outcomes than your typical player drafted in the RB Deadzone.

Teams that are drafting running backs with Day 1 or 2 picks in the NFL Draft are investing decent draft capital in these players, so the chances they see the field early and find a defined role is likely (unless they’re named Trey Sermon, of course), while it isn’t uncommon to see a veteran slip into obscurity once they hit these middle rounds.

Into the Numbers

To compare how rookie running backs drafted in the RB Deadzone fare, I took the ADP for 12-team PPR leagues since 2018, charted rookie running backs drafted in Rounds 4-8, and compared them to the 67 veterans drafted in the same range.

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Rookie Draft Year ADP ADP Finish
Javonte Williams 2021 5.03 25 17
Trey Sermon 2021 6.08 30 95
Michael Carter 2021 7.06 32 28
D’Andre Swift 2020 5.10 30 18
Cam Akers 2020 5.04 26 43
J.K. Dobbins 2020 6.07 31 21
Zach Moss 2020 7.11 36 45
Antonio Gibson 2020 7.07 34 12
Miles Sanders 2019 5.09 27 15
Darrell Henderson 2019 8.03 41 96
Devin Singletary 2019 7.08 33 31
Tony Pollard 2019 5.08 30 51
Rashaad Penny 2018 7.04 36 66
Sony Michel 2018 7.01 34 28
Kerryon Johnson 2018 5.02 27 34

Overall there have been 15 rookie running backs taken in the RB Deadzone since 2018. Of those 15, 53% of them are returning higher year-end RB finishes over their ADP – that’s 16% higher than veterans drafted in the same range.

Not only are rookie running backs returning more consistently on their ADP, but they’re also more likely to finish in the top-24 than veterans. There have been 4 top-24 finishes (and 1 top-12 finish) from RB Deadzone drafted rookie running backs since 2018, that’s a 7% higher top-24 return rate than veterans drafted in rounds 4-8.

Year Rookie Return ADP Rate Top-24 Rookie Finish Rate
2018 2/3 33% 0/3 0%
2019 3/5 50% 1/4 25%
2020 2/4 60% 3/5 60%
2021 1/3 67% 1/3 33%
Total 8/15 53% 5/15 33%
Year Veterans Outperform ADP? Rate Veterans Top-24 Finishes Rate
2018 9/17 52% 7/17 41%
2019 5/15 33% 4/15 27%
2020 4/16 25% 2/16 13%
2021 7/19 37% 6/19 31%
Total 25/67 37% 20/67 28%

Who are the 2022 RB Dead Zone Rookies?

Without a clear-cut rookie who’s sure to be a lead back in 2022, there are several running backs that are worth considering in the RB Deadzone as you prepare for your 2022 redraft.

Breece Hall, New York Jets – ADP 4.07

Hall tops the list as the highest running back selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, and the Ballers have him ranked the highest in the class as RB20. The range of projections varies though, with Jason projecting Hall as RB14, but Mike sits lowest on him at RB23. While there is plenty of company in the backfield with second-year back Michael Carter (who was one of the Rookie RB Deadzone returners of his ADP last season), there’s enough excitement around the shiny new Jets offense to make Hall worth keeping an eye on.

Hall is just outside the RB Deadzone, so his value may get inflated closer to draft season. The biggest question is how much you believe in Zach Wilson to make this offense go, especially considering how little he threw to the running back position from what we saw in 2021.

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Ken Walker, Seattle Seahawks – ADP 6.08

The consensus RB36 for the Ballers, Walker walks into an interesting situation in Seattle where we know the coach wants to run the ball, but there are already several established backs he’ll have to win time over in Rashaad Penny and potentially Chris Carson.

Walker’s ceiling may be a bit limited due to his receiving game. The Michigan State product’s college profile shows concerns about his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield after logging only 19 career receptions. Considering the five Seattle running backs combined for only 52 receptions in 2021, the receiving game may not be something Walker can prove he’s capable of straight away.

Watching Walker’s ADP will be important, especially if he continues to go right around or before the assumed starter and 2021 fantasy darling in Penny – part of the reason the Ballers have assigned him a 5.3 risk rating.

James Cook, Buffalo Bills – ADP 9.04

Technically Cook is currently going outside the RB Deadzone, but I’d expect his ADP to rise the closer we get to draft season. Cook landed in the place we all wanted to see a rookie running back go since there seems to be work to be had with the great Bills offense. The question of whether he can be on the field for more than just passing work will have to be answered before fantasy managers can start putting more faith in him.

Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans – ADP 10.04

Pierce is another rookie running back that is currently outside the RB Deadzone, but I’d expect the hype train whistle to move him higher as we approach the regular season. The name of the game for Pierce is opportunity in Houston. Marlon Mack is being framed as the early season starter, but he’s coming off an Achilles injury and Pierce could have a chance to see relevance early on if Mack isn’t the guy we knew prior.

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