Fantasy Football: Studying the Positional Draft Value of RBs

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WARNING: If you have a deep-seated distaste for statistics, data analysis, or tables full of numbers, this article may cause hair loss, fits of madness, and possibly long-term comatose. Proceed with caution.

If you haven’t read the articles covering the quarterback, tight end, and wide receiver positions, check those out for an overall intro to this series and some of the basic concepts and qualifiers. If you have been following along so far, welcome to running backs, and hope you enjoyed the journey!

Early Upside and the Late Round Stockpile at RB

Besides the growing popularity of the “late round QB” adage, the second most universal draft motto is probably “take running back early.” It’s the reason that 9 of the top 12 picks (according to Fantasy Football Calculator’s current standard ADP) are RBs, and why you’ll often see six to ten backs drafted before even the No. 2 wideout. The question is: is there justification for this tactic in the data?

We’re going to take this one in reverse and look at point differential first. Once again, here’s the table we’ve been using to analyze this info.

QB Projected Avg. Points Per Game (Tier Drop-off) RB Projected Avg. Points Per Game (Tier Drop-off) WR Projected Avg. Points Per Game (Tier Drop-off) TE Projected Avg. Points Per Game (Tier Drop-off)
Rounds 1-2 N/A 15.9 15.1 N/A
Rounds 3-4 19.8 10.9 (-5.0) 11.9 (-3.2) 11.4
Rounds 5-8 17.5 (-2.3) 9.0 (-1.9) 10.0 (-1.9) 8.7 (-2.7)
Rounds 9-11 16.1 (-1.4) 7.0 (-2.0) 8.0 (-2.0) 6.9 (-1.8)
Total Drop-off 3.7 8.9 7.1 4.5

The 5-point drop off in production from Round 1-2 RBs to Round 3-4 RBs is by far the most drastic in the entirety of fantasy drafts. Put in perspective, that’s approximately the drop off in 2017 points per game from Tom Brady to Andy Dalton, or from breakout Keenan Allen to bust Amari Cooper. In fantasy, five points is usually more than enough to make the difference in a weekly matchup, and that’s just the differential between a single elite RB and his still-high-end Round 3 counterpart.

The overall gap between first-round ball-carriers and late-round guys (Rounds 9-11) is also the largest in the draft, at a whopping 8.9 points per game — that’s more than double the production gap between elite QBs and late round QBs.

All of this data funnels into one basic truth: elite running backs carry more week-winning potential and production value than just about any other positional tier. As such, waiting on RB until Round 3 or later, while it can be supported from other directions (including one discussed in the WR article), is a quick way to fall behind on per-game fantasy production.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

One other interesting note from this table is that the next tier drop at RB (-1.9 points), from Round 3-4 guys to Round 5-8 guys, is actually smaller than the drop off across the same rounds at quarterback and tight end, and equal to the drop off at wide receiver. This is one of the things that makes drafting an elite QB or TE worth consideration, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series, and one of the places to make up the production you might lose from foregoing an elite RB.

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Expected Point Production

Now let’s wrap it up with running back hit rates. Here’s the table covering the top 50 at the position over the past five years.

POSITIONAL ADP

(Approx. Round)

RB1-RB9

(Rounds 1-2)

RB10-RB20

(Rounds 3-4)

RB21-RB35

(Rounds 5-8)

RB36-RB50

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(Rounds 9-11)

FANTASY FINISH RB1-RB9 44.4% 25.5% 6.7% 6.7%
RB10-RB20 24.4% 21.8% 12.0% 16.0%
RB21-RB35 11.1% 20.0% 26.7% 17.3%
RB36-RB50 6.7% 9.1% 22.7% 16.0%
RB50+ 13.3% 23.6% 32.0% 44.0%

In comparison to wide receivers, their closest “rivals” in fantasy drafts, top-tier running backs have a much higher bust rate, finishing outside the top 35 at a concerning rate of 20%, compared to WRs at 8.8%. This safety built into elite receivers, as we covered in the WR article, is the main consideration for taking one early over a running back. It also means that if you do go RB-RB to start your draft, you may want to avoid high-bust-risk picks (like elite TEs) in the next several rounds.

Meanwhile, RBs in the middle rounds are a bit of a fool’s errand. As we discussed previously with WRs, the starting receiver hit rate in Round 5-8 (33.4%) makes grabbing a back in the same range (18.7%) nearly pointless. Instead, consider looking at the late-round RB handcuffs in Rounds 9-11. There, we find an elevated starter hit rate of 22.7%, compared to only 13.4% for WRs, likely due to the shorter path from depth chart asset to lead back. Of course, if you do avoid RB in the early rounds, you may need to stock up on running backs throughout the middle rounds as well, as they will still offer a decent chance at starter value relative to later guys.

Conclusion

Of course, in all of this, it’s important to remember that everything we’ve gleaned from this data should be a guideline, not necessarily a rule of law. Flexibility and adaptability — i.e. “being water” — are paramount in drafts, as things won’t always fall exactly as you’d like or expect. What this information can do is inform your strategies and maybe shed some light on existing tactics you’ve heard of but not bought into. Among other things, we learned through this series that reliability and upside do not always go hand in hand, but that you can use the data to plan around that, e.g. balancing a highly reliable, lower upside WR in the first rounds with a potential game-changer at QB or TE, etc.

Whatever you do, make sure to draft the way you want, and get the players you like. Fantasy football is a game, after all, and all the stats in the world mean nothing if you aren’t having fun. Hope you enjoyed drinking up this data as much as I enjoyed brewing it! And for whole lot more strategy, tips, and otherwise awesome information don’t forget to check out the freshly minted 2018 Ultimate Draft Kit!

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