The Case of the Back-Up RB for Fantasy Football

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Players get hurt every week in the NFL. We see the most horrific injuries on our television screens – like Joe Burrow ripping his knee apart to Dak Prescott bending his leg backward, and we gasp in shock. Once we get over the human factor of this injury – which cannot be emphasized enough here, these are PEOPLE – we often hold our breath and think, “oh boy, I hope (insert name here) is on the waiver wire, because that guy is out for the season.” Who did not run to pick up Alexander Mattison at some point last year when Dalvin Cook was slow to get up, or Tony Pollard after it was reported that Zeke had a tweak?

Midway through the pre-season, it was Cam Akers. The fantasy community held their collective breath as we waited to hear what Sean McVay said about the situation. Were the Rams going with Darrell Henderson? Or should we be running to the waiver wire to pick up vets like Gurley or Gore that could potentially sign with Los Angeles? More recently, Travis Etienne went down, and a rookie season was gone in the blink of an eye. And this weekend, we lost another RB before the season began, losing Baltimore Raven J.K. Dobbins.

Looking at all these season-ending injuries, how important are “backup RBs” in fantasy football?

Protect Those RBs

Back in the day when three-dwon RBs were common on NFL teams, it used to be a much more frequently used strategy to draft their backup in fantasy. You knew it was wise to have the backup RB on your squad if you had drafted the stud workhorse RB because it was simply a question of wear and tear. That starter would be physically putting his body through so much week in and week out that the chance of injury was so high. It is a slightly different world now.

Not a week goes by when we do not hear a coach say, “running back by committee,” or even worse in my eyes, “we will just play the hot hand.” Coaches understood how hard it was to keep a stud RB healthy when they would carry the football on average of 20-30 times a game or have around 70% of the total touches.

Committee Time

The percentage of dominant 3-down RBs has been on a steady decline. In the last five years, out of the top five finishing RBs, there were only six times that an RB averaged over 20 touches a game. Compare that with a different five-year sample size, the 2005 – 2009 seasons. There were 19 times a top-five finishing RB finished with over 20 touches a game in that span of years. Even with the decline, there are still some incredible backs in the league – for 2021, the main ones being Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, and Najee Harris (if we believe Mike Tomlin). If we learned one thing about RBs and the high draft capital you must spend to get them, it can all come crashing down in a moment.

For example, Christian McCaffrey went down to an ankle injury in game two of the regular season last year. When that happened, an undrafted Mike Davis was thrust into the starting role and finished as RB 15. McCaffrey managers who could not pick up Davis were furious, realizing they had a wasted first pick. I believe in insuring these top RBs, at least McCaffrey, Cook, and Henry – it is like buying insurance on that fancy car; you may never need it, but if you do, you are incredibly thankful you purchased it. It can pay huge dividends to protect your early-round investments.

Below are the backups for the top-ranked 15 RBs going into the 2021 season.

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But remember, not all backups are the same.

When is a Backup Not Really a Backup

We already know that not all backfields are run by a true three-down back. There is a myriad of backfields that have two strong RBs. In these situations, the backup is not considered a backup – they are an RB2 with strong RB1 potential if the stars align. Often you could be starting that player in a flex position every week or using them as a fill-in on a bye week. Two examples of this situation are Tampa Bay and Cleveland. In Tampa Bay, the number one RB on the depth chart is Leonard Fournette, with Ronald Jones being the backup. Both are going off draft boards exceptionally close to each other, about a round apart, with the UDK consensus rankings putting Jones as RB28 and Fournette as RB37. So, what do you do in this situation? This is a spot where you have no backup per se; you simply have two strong RB’s who might trade-off having better weeks. Not to mention the fact that Giovanni Bernard is now in the mix. Backfields like this are often ones I avoid. It is too hard to pick the right player to go off in the right week.

Another prime example is the Cleveland Browns backfield. You have Nick Chubb, ranked at UDK consensus rankings RB6, being drafted in the middle of the first round. Following not too far behind is Kareem Hunt. Hunt is coming off the board around RB26 in the fourth round. This situation is slightly different than the Bucs backfield in that Chubb is a clear RB1. However, Hunt still can have massive value. Last season he averaged 12.5 fantasy points a game, only four less than Nick Chubb. And he played every game, while if you were a Chubb manager you lost him four games due to injury. Chubb and Hunt have the smallest difference in ADP between the starter and backup, being drafted only three rounds apart.

The Age Old Swoop

There is also the age-old question of who’s backup is more valuable? Is it more beneficial to roster the backup of someone else’s RB or the backup of a RB from your team?

Let me paint a picture. Say I manage Dalvin Cook, and my league mate Dan manages Derrick Henry. Should I draft Alexander Mattison with my last pick or Darrynton Evans? If I draft Evans and Henry goes down, I could roster two potential RB difference makers and leave Dan in the dust. Sorry, Dan. But then what happens if Cook goes down? My hand is left in the cookie jar and I am left to scour the waiver wire for a startable RB. It is a complex situation that often makes fantasy players throw their hands in the air and say, “I want none of this!” That reaction is 100% valid and understandable.

Personally – especially in a deeper league – if I draft one of the top five or so RBs, I always try to grab their backup with a much later pick. I have seen too many people burned over my tenure playing fantasy football. I know with that pick, I am losing the opportunity to get an upside player that may have an explosive year on their own, a Darnell Mooney or a Gerald Everett, if you will. But that’s just how I play. Insurance is a personal decision.

And always remember, Derrick Henry was once a backup who someone stashed on their bench.

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Bob says:

Interesting read, not sure if I can forego an upside WR at the back of my drafts but you make solid points.

That back RB list is outdated though.

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