Drafting fantasy running backs can make or break your season. Until recently, the conventional wisdom has been that you must load up on running backs in the early rounds, then focus on other positions. I have never been a proponent of that theory. For me, it’s get in and get out, make good picks, but don’t increase the risk of being behind at multiple positions by throwing numbers early. I’ve often found success zigging at the running back position in the mid-rounds, when others are zagging toward receivers and quarterbacks.
One of the things I’ve always tried to do is assess both upside and downside risk, and avoid downside risk too early. The biggest downside risk I tend to avoid early at the running back position is age. I’m not anti-older back; I had Curtis Martin in 2004 and Thomas Jones pretty much landed on my roster every year of his Chicago and Jets career. But I didn’t spend high picks on those players. I’ve stayed away from the Shaun Alexanders and Ahman Greens and Rudi Johnsons once they got into the late 20’s and were still commanding reasonably high picks.
But I wanted to test out some of this by looking back over just the last four years (since I have four years of average draft position data via fantasyfootballcalculator) to see how it worked out. I looked at all backs who were, on average, drafted between pick 7 in the first round, and the end of the fourth round, in standard scoring 12 team leagues in the week prior to the start of the season. I used these cutoffs because a) you should take a running back in the top 6 picks almost without fail, and these are your “in their prime” studs, so I’m excluding them, and b) it is generally in this range where you are making the calls on taking a back versus a top WR or QB, and determining how many to take.
On average, 22.5 running backs have been drafted by the end of round 4 over the last four years. This is generally the range where all the sure starters, guys who are not in time shares, and guys that don’t have major injury concerns entering the season will fall. So I looked at this group (66 backs total) and broke them down by a variety of things, including age.
For quick explanation, I’m comparing fantasy points (non-ppr) to the baseline at the position, and I’m going to make the baseline in this case the 37th highest scoring back in a given season, so that 2 starters and a flex in a 12 team league are all above the baseline. If a player is below a baseline and they were drafted in the first 4 rounds, I think it’s fair to call them a bust, whether they went out with an early injury and you had to find a replacement, or they limped along putting mediocre numbers all year. Here’s a summary of how many “booms” (100+ fantasy points over baseline) and “busts” (below baseline) there were by age.
|23 & under||19||5||5||52.4|
|24 to 25||11||4||1||86.6|
|26 to 27||18||2||3||64.3|
|28 & older||18||3||8||39.8|
So, the backs 28 and older who have been taken between pick 7 and the end of the 4th round have produced almost half of the busts in this range, and the lowest average value over baseline. It’s not a result of being drafted later, either, as average 28+ year old back was selected slightly earlier than those in the 24 to 25, and 23 and under age groups.
The younger players have a larger variation, as 5 of them have been booms (Adrian Peterson as a rookie, Jones-Drew in 2008, Ray Rice in 2009, Mendenhall and McCoy last year) while just as many have been busts. At the older group, the risk has just been too great, with over twice as many busting as booming.
This next look is somewhat correlated to age, though not entirely. This is a summary of the fantasy performance of the backs in the study, based on where they finished the previous season in fantasy rank. I’ve added to columns to the end: “Pos Rank” is the average RB draft position in the year in question, because unlike the previous age grouping, this shows a definite difference in draft position tied to previous year performance; and “Avg. Age”, which is exactly what it says.
|Previous Year||Total||Booms||Busts||Avg. VOB||Pos Rank||Avg Age|
|11 to 20||21||6||5||62.9||13.6||25.7|
|21 to 30||12||2||2||54.3||14.3||26.2|
|Outside top 30||12||5||3||70.8||17.9||24.4|
Players drafted outside the top six of the first round who had been in the Top 10 the previous year were drafted the earliest, but had the lowest average value over baseline, and far more busts than booms. In contrast, unproven or injured players who had finished outside the top 30 the previous year but were thought highly enough to merit a selection in the first four rounds did quite well.
In some ways, this runs counter to our perception of what is safe. The back who played every game the year before and put up a good performance gets boosted up as the safe pick, when that is not reality. The guy who has never been a starter but either shows talent or never started gets bumped down because he’s risky.
Who falls into these categories this year, based on early Average Draft Position data? The only three backs at age 28 in this year’s first four rounds are all established stars, singing a siren song for you to draft them at the 1st and 2nd round turn. Michael Turner, Frank Gore, and Steven Jackson are currently 10th, 11th, and 12th. This look at the last four years does nothing to change my view on Michael Turner that I expressed in my early rankings and in this post on aging.
At the other end, two guys fall in the 24-25 age range and outside the top 30 last year: Ryan Mathews and Jonathan Stewart. Well, Mathews was right at #30, and Stewart was #36, as both battled injuries, and the two 24 year-olds are going off as the 17th and 20th picks at running back respectively. I had them at #8 for Mathews and #10 for Stewart. Stewart’s ranking may rise a little with official word that DeAngelo Williams has moved on, but I think both are tremendous value at their current draft positions.
[photo via Getty]