Continuing my draft investigation series, let’s move to arguably the most important fantasy position: the running back. Once again the focus is on 12-team formats with 1 QB, 2RB, 2WR, TE, and Flex. I’ll look into both standard and PPR, but assume PPR unless otherwise stated. All ADP research comes from myfantasyleague.com after Aug 1 with respect to each year. For the sake of my investigations and because of the availability of their information, ESPN is my source for championship fantasy teams. Pro-Football-Reference is the source for all other data.
RB first. Running backs have been the kings of fantasy football ever since value-based drafting became a thing. 2016 was the only year with all available data from MFL that a running back didn’t go first overall in the draft, and the typical first round is dominated by the position. Eight of the top twelve picks in 1-QB 2019 leagues are running backs, and the first WR isn’t being drafted until pick seven. This is the way it’s done: draft RB first and draft heavy.
The reasons RBs go first are many, but the simplest way to describe the position is that they are league-winners. In the last decade, there have only been two seasons without an RB as the fantasy MVP. The first, 2011, was a bizarre year in which Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees topped out the list. The second was 2015 in which Antonio Brown took the MVP title and six of the top ten spots belonged to WRs, giving us a WR-heavy 2016 ADP and credence to the myth that Zero-RB is a legitimate strategy.
The reason for RB heavy drafts is twofold. 1) top-tier RBs can outscore any position—occasionally even QBs—and 2) they come in extremely short supply. High scores and short supply creates top-heavy value. Even if a running back doesn’t score as many points as another viable flex option, such as a WR, he may still be more valuable. The league has 32 starting running backs, and even this is debatable with RBBCs and persistently rotating depth charts. Your league likely has twenty or twenty-four starting running backs and occasionally even more in Flex positions. There are few running backs that can be described as bellcows, and owners who acquire them are at an advantaged position over the rest of the field who must start at least two lesser tier players.
This is the perfect time to look at an average of the previous three years’ running back performances and compare them with wide receivers. Why wide receivers? Because RBs and WRs will comprise the bulk of your roster and are the only position save QB that I think you should draft more than one of. Although a tight end can occasionally occupy a Flex spot, it’s typically an RB or WR. RBs and WRs are not interchangeable, but they need to be studied simultaneously.
Your league size and starting RB requirements will adjust value projections for you, but it is clear that there is a dramatic drop off in top running back performance compared to worst starter and replacement player value. This doesn’t seem to be the case with wide receivers, where the drop off is much shallower and the position as a whole outscores running backs. The most important points to note about this graph are that valuable receivers can likely be found later than RBs, that WRs should typically occupy your Flex spot, and finally, that value projections far more heavily favor RBs, hence the reason we draft them so heavily.
As we can see in this graph from historical implied projections, we should assume the top five or six running backs will outscore all WRs. Does this mean that we’re right to draft six running backs before reaching for the first WR? Probably not, because this graph displays points scored, but not value. The value will actually be much higher for running backs, meaning we probably aren’t currently drafting enough RBs in the first round. Chances are, picking any of the top ball-carriers would be a more valuable pick than any receiver.
You’ll want to investigate an article I wrote in 2018 about value-based projections and how to establish baselines, but one important piece of advice to give you is how many RBs to start, and how many to draft. Assuming standard league size of twelve with 2RBs, 2WRs, and 1 Flex, the league will start a minimum of 24RBs and 24WRs. Looking back over the last three years, the average points scored by the 36th WR was just higher than the 25th RB, meaning ALL FLEX SPOTS in a 12-team PPR league should be WRs. If you find yourself starting an RB in your Flex every week, it means you’re overloaded at RB and you should trade for a WR. If you’re playing standard (for some reason), about 29 running backs should start league-wide, leaving room for 31 WRs (or five RBs in Flex to seven WRs).
Time for a few factual tidbits about RBs over the last three years:
The fantasy MVP (a running back) has been owned by at least 31% of ESPN championship teams
At least three RBs have outscored all WRs (five in standard)
The average ADP of the best RB is 1.09
At least two RBs past pick 100 became an RB1
Only 2018’s James Conner was an identifiable handcuff who became an RB2 or higher
2018’s Jaylen Samuels (UFA), became a handcuff and finished on 23% of ESPN championship teams
The RB1s in 2018 had an average of 84.5 targets, up from 79.2 in 2017, and 58.1 in 2016
The RB2s in 2018 had an average of 38.4 targets, down from the previous two years
Pro Football Focus projects six RBs to top 84 targets in 2019: Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, James White, Ezekiel Elliott, and Le’Veon Bell
Three of the top four RBs in 2018 were targeted over 100 times
The average finishing position of the top drafted RB was RB7
The average finishing position of the top twelve RBs was RB17
At least one RB drafted in Round 1 did not qualify for any final season rankings
I’m not going to rock the boat here. I’m still going RB first and so should you. I might draft a WR if I’m drafting toward the back, but the WRs I’d appreciate deeper into the first round will most likely be gone anyway. Not only should you emphasize drafting a running back early, but the position should dominate your draft. Though WRs score more as a whole, that does not necessarily mean you should draft more of them, as they are a less injury-prone position. As well, RBs are more volatile, meaning your earlier picks have a higher chance of busting and your later picks have a higher chance of booming.
I don’t think drafting handcuffs is a legitimate strategy with the exception of Pittsburgh. The difficulty is evaluating who the handcuff actually is, and if a big name goes down, you need to be active on the waiver wire but don’t draft Chase Edmonds this year with the belief that he’ll fill a David Johnson role.
Optimally, drafting 1 TE, 1 D/ST, 1 K, and 2 QBs leaves room for 11 spots in most leagues. Although I like to keep it fairly even, I’ll lean heavier on RB and will most likely draft six RBs and five WRs (five of each is minimum). If league rules allow, don’t bother drafting D/ST and K and instead draft six or seven RBs and WRs and watch as pre-season injuries chew up rosters.
When drafting your first RB, you must go for guys who will not necessarily dominate in total touches, but total fantasy opportunity. As targets are more valuable than carries, this means that receiving backs like CMC, Saquon, and Kamara have a huge advantage to be fantasy MVPs. I’m more skeptical of Mixon and Chubb and am downright off Leonard Fournette.
Not every RB pick has to have huge potential; it’s worth targeting safe floors as well, even if a back isn’t technically the team’s starter. For instance, over the past three years, Tevin Coleman, Tarik Cohen, TJ Yeldon, and Chris Thompson have all been fantasy relevant and beat their ADPs each year they played, though they weren’t typically drafted with the expectation of taking over the starting role.
Fans of the video game series Hearts of Iron have a saying: “When in doubt, build infantry.” If you don’t know what to do in your fantasy draft, just pick a running back.
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