Who are the most undervalued and overvalued running backs since 2000? That’s about the time that the fantasy football boom on the internet was underway. Yes, yes, I’m sure you have stories about how who you manually calculated fantasy scores from the newspaper in 1989, or how Scott Mitchell carried you to that title, but it was around the turn of the century that the numbers exploded.
I had done baseball leagues before that year (on AOL, yes, good times listening to the dial tone waiting to check scores), but that was the first time I did a full auction league, and had no idea what I was doing. A buddy, who knew I followed the NFL heavily for, ahem, other reasons, thought I would be a good choice to sit in for him in a law firm draft. I didn’t know what I was doing. I ended up with Robert Smith (always injured), Corey Dillon and Duce Staley for the cost of what the others were paying for the top 8 backs. My quarterback choices merited laughs in the conference room: Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper (who had thrown 0 passes at that point), and Cade McNown. Hey, two out of three ain’t bad. Carl Pickens was my big bust at wide receiver. Good times.
So I thought I would be fun to take a look down fantasy lane at the most undervalued and overvalued guys of the internet fantasy football era to see what stood out. The big question was how to do it. Opinions, as they say, are like a certain sphincter. Everyone has at least one. Fantasy football drafts, though, are the ultimate test of those opinion–where do you go when the pick is on the clock? The rookie, the veteran who has carried you before, do you trust the guy who has had nagging injuries?
So we have historical “average draft position” (ADP) data going back to 2000 (thanks, Doug Drinen of Footballguys and Pro Football Reference for hooking me up) and can tell what the group opinion was on players. While it’s not a perfect proxy about how a player was perceived over time, it’s a pretty good indicator. We also have the results.
To assess, I used the preseason ADP, and found the median fantasy points scored (non-PPR) for each draft position. I then used a smoothed line that got rid of the bounciness in the data, and this is what I used as my “expected points” for each draft position. Here’s a chart showing the period 2000-2013.
For every running back who was in the top 50 in ADP for at least three different seasons since 2000, I then calculated their expected fantasy points based on where fantasy football popular opinion drafted them, versus the actual fantasy points scored in all seasons. (For years where a player was not listed in ADP but actually played, I used 30 fantasy points as the expected amount).
I should also state that these are rear-looking numbers, and past performance does not indicate future results. Plenty of players on this list were overvalued for portions of their careers (or injured) and undervalued for others. Take Reggie Bush. Overall, if all you knew was his ADP each year, you would project him to have approximately 1167 fantasy points. He actually has 1140. He underperformed expectations from 2007-2010 as a Saint, but has exceeded the expected points based on draft position for each of the last three in Miami and Detroit.
Let’s get to the players at each extreme.
The five most undervalued players (by difference between expected and actual per year) are Tiki Barber, LaDainian Tomlinson, Fred Jackson, LeSean McCoy, and Warrick Dunn. Let’s start with Barber.
Last night, I asked for gut reactions to word association of “Tiki Barber” and “Hall of Fame”. I got a lot of responses that included F words. Even before he steamrolled his post-playing career and reputation by nuking Eli and alienating Giants fans, and leaving his pregnant wife, Barber wasn’t as popular as you would think given his play. Before all of that, there was Ron Dayne to rob him of the spotlight.
By fantasy points–simply a combination of yards gained and touchdowns–Tiki Barber is at 1692 for the 7 years from 2000-2006. For comparison, Adrian Peterson, who has been viewed as the best back in football post-Tomlinson, is at 1728 for the first 7 years of his career. By draft position and perception, though, Barber was viewed similar to Darren McFadden. He was top 10 only once over that period. He outperformed his expectations for every year from 2000 to 2006, averaging 86.7 more points than you would expect per year.
How does Tomlinson show up on this list? He was widely recognized as the best back, and still managed to be worth every penny. I outbid everyone for him in an auction league for 5 straight years from 2004 to 2008 and won three titles. Tomlinson goes to show that it isn’t the cheap back that is always the greatest value.
Fred Jackson was the opposite. Peaking at an older age, coming from a small school where he was not well known, and competing with first round picks held his perceived draft value down.
LeSean McCoy will get to test his past of being underrated, as he will go off the board at #1 in many drafts this year and need another monster year to stay up top.
Warrick Dunn, like Barber, was part of the platoon where the big bruiser drew attention, but the skinny guy provided way more value as a result. Dunn routinely went off the board at flex or low end RB2 prices, but provided better results. He never had a monster year that changed perception, but always provided value.
The most overvalued players were Olandis Gary, Duce Staley, Mark Ingram, Darren McFadden, and William Green.
Gary’s inclusion is a function of not including 1999, when he put up big numbers in Shanahan’s offense when Terrell Davis got hurt. Gary suffered his own knee injury in 2000, and was never the same, but drafters kept taking him for the next few years, perhaps remembering that 1999 season.
Duce Staley was a bit of a shock for me. He suffered a knee injury in 2000. After that, he was regularly part of committees, but even though he was drafted higher, was often outperformed by teammates (Westbrook, Bettis). He had a big year in 2002 but underperformed relative to his ADP every other season.
Mark Ingram is the most overvalued among guys who have played their entire careers after 2000. He has for three years been modestly priced as a platoon back in the Saints offense and has managed to underwhelm with his opportunities.
Darren McFadden has the promise and allure. He has also been injured and cannot stay on the field, but has enough talent to entice with his upside.
William Green was, well, at the cutting edge of off the field issues in the NFL, and would have been a big hit in the blog world.
Here is the complete list of all 103 backs and where they rank (thanks to Michael Shamburger for making this sortable PDF):