Fantasy Football 101: How to Approach Running Backs in Dynasty

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After last week was officially #DynastyWeek on the Fantasy Footballers Podcast, it seems appropriate to discuss how to approach the running back position in dynasty. After all, running backs are the high-value players – the guys who can take you to a title and help you bring home the ship. Given that there’s fewer startable running backs compared to wide receivers, their value via trade and in a start up draft is much higher, and therefore, it’s important to understand how to approach the position in dynasty.

Before we dive into a detailed discussion on running backs in dynasty, be sure to check out the 2021 Ultimate Draft Kit, which features the all-new Dynasty Pass. This features AndyMike, and Jason‘s 2021 rookie rankings as well as their start-up rankings, among other valuable resources like Mike’s top dynasty trade targets. Order before June 1 to save some cash!

Running Backs Play Fewer Seasons Than Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Ever listen to a podcast and hear an analyst say “The shelf life on running backs is short”? What that analyst is referring to is the fact that running backs tend to have shorter NFL careers than other skill position groups, especially wide receivers. According to this study, running backs only play an average of 2.57 seasons in the NFL, whereas the league average is at 3.3 for all positions.

Now, it’s important to note here that this study includes all running backs, not just the top-tier options like Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey. We’ll get backs like that soon, but for the sake of this study, the general take-home is this: The running back position turns over at the fastest rate of any position in fantasy football.

Have five minutes? Just take a look back at the top-12 running backs from 2018, 2017, and heck even 2016. The list changes year after year after year. Why? We know from my study from 2019 that running backs tend to get injured more than other positions, and I’m not the first person to study this. Josh Hermsmeyer put out a fantastic article looking at this specific trend as well, which you can find here.

On top of increased injury rates is the understanding from NFL front offices that the running back position is relatively replaceable, at least in terms of allocation of funds. After a running back earns a second contract (if he earns a second contract), these guys just aren’t signing long-term deals outside of the elite of the elite backs. For a wide receiver or a quarterback, it’s not unheard of for a player to sign a deal for 5+ seasons. At the RB position, we’re hoping NFL teams invest a 2+ year deal in these guys and only a small, small percentage of backs actually go on to get that second contract. As a result, we tend to see running backs come into the league quickly then exit just as fast.

Key Takeaway: Running Backs Have a Short Shelf Life

Know When It’s Time To Move On

Okay, so now we know running backs don’t last very long in the NFL, but if I already have a back on my roster, when should I trade them away? I looked at running back performance by age a couple of years ago, and here’s what I found:

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  • Running backs age 27 or older are unlikely to finish inside the top-7 in total fantasy points for a given season. They are capable of finishing inside the top 15, but we rarely (almost never) see an elite top-5 season.
  • The average age of a Top 12 RB for fantasy is getting younger each year.
  • From 2015 to 2019, the number of RBs who finish as top-12 options that are at least 27 years old is declining. Starting in 2015 here is the number of RBs 27+ years of age who finished inside the top 12: 4 > 4 > 3 > 1 > 1

Be sure to check out the full article linked above for full details. So now, we know two things about running backs – they don’t last long in the NFL, and when they do, their fantasy performance tends to decline over time. My research has lead me to the age of about 27 as the point where production declines, but there are other studies out there that have found 26 is a more predictive age for when the decline happens. Regardless of which number you use, understand this: the decline happens quickly.

In order to maximize the value of running backs on your dynasty roster, it’s important to trade away these stud backs before the decline happens. On last week’s episode of the podcast, Andy, Mike, and Jason discussed trading away Derrick Henry right now before it’s too late. Why? He’s 27.4 years old, has accumulated 705 regular-season rush attempts over the last two years, and despite that massive workload, he’s avoided the dreaded injury bug. Remember, we know injury rates are higher in RBs – is Henry an outlier here? Possibly, but for how much he touches the football, you could say he’s been lucky in terms of avoiding major injury.

Look, trading away a back like Henry who is a true difference-maker can be scary, but getting out on a back at max value a year early is much, much better than getting out a year too late. Todd Gurley managers – can anyone out there relate? The time to get out on King Henry might be right now before it’s too late.

These same concepts can be applied to other running backs in the league as well, but here are some general strategies to employ when looking to move on from a running back in dynasty:

  • Age 26 or older, especially age 27
  • Already on a second contract (Remember, RBs rarely get three, and if they do, it’s usually as a backup or a one-year deal)
  • Backs coming off massive workload and career seasons who aren’t first or second-year players

If using this criteria, the ability to trade a running back at peak value will be much more likely. Now, it’s important to point out that every dynasty roster is different. If you’re a contending player in your dynasty league and you have Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook on your squad, it makes sense to hold Henry and make a push for the title. Use discretion and individual circumstances when evaluating a trade.

Key Takeaway: Be willing to trade a running back one year early rather than one year too late.

Replace Running Backs via Dynasty Rookie Drafts

In my article last month where I completed a deep dive on the wide receiver position in dynasty, I asked my followers on Twitter to answer a simple question: which position holds more value in dynasty, Top 12 RB or a Top 12 WR?

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According to this poll, 64% of those who answered believe RB1s in dynasty hold more trade value. In other words, they’re much more expensive to acquire via trade. You’ll likely have to give up multiple assets, including youth and potentially rookie picks to get one. This is part of the reason it’s recommended to trade away running backs who are at peak value (see above).

Because they’re so expensive to acquire via trade, consider replacing the running back position via your dynasty rookie draft. There’s at least some uncertainty associated with rookie picks as we know the hit rate isn’t awesome, especially in the second round of rookie drafts. That said, running backs selected in the first and second round of the NFL Draft will see opportunity for multiple seasons given the financial investment these NFL teams make in these players. They’re often worthy of a top-five rookie pick given that it’s essentially a plug-and-play situation for rookie RBs.

Here are the number of rookie RBs and second-year RBs to finish inside the top 24 at the position over the last three seasons:

  • 2020: 9 out 24 (37.5%) were either rookie RBs or 2nd-year RBs
  • 2019: 3 out of 24 (12.5%) were either rookie RBs or 2nd-year RBs
  • 2018: 13 of 24 (54.2%) were either rookie RBs or 2nd-year RBs

Key Takeaway: Rookie running backs are cheaper to acquire via a rookie draft rather than via trade.

Conclusion

Running backs are the key to winning a dynasty championship, but understanding how to value the position in dynasty is critical to becoming a consistent long-term contender in dynasty. There are many levels to the strategy outlined above, but in general, adding rookie running backs via the rookie draft and being willing to trade an elite running back before the bottom falls out is the foundation of being a successful dynasty manager.

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Looking for more dynasty resources? Be sure to check out the following strategy-based articles here on the site and dive into the all-new Dynasty Pass, an exclusive part of the 2021 Ultimate Draft Kit+.

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