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Fantasy Football: Breaking Down the Risk and Reward of Rookie Running Backs

Green Bay Packers v St. Louis Rams

Rookies can break your heart. They can also lead to fantasy glory. How has the fantasy football market valued them? Are the shiny new toys overvalued? Or do people tend to undervalue them because they have yet to see them in action in the NFL? Earlier, I took a look at players who were highly thought of one year, then less so the next.

Now, we turn to the rookies. Since 2000, 97 different rookies have been drafted, on average, in the top 60 in fantasy drafts (this courtesy the average draft position info furnished by Doug Drinen). Today, we see how they stack up, and if you have not read my previous piece on undervalued and overvalued players, you will want to check it out to see the method I am using to measure expected performance by draft position. The quick version: I am comparing a player to the median expected points for a back at that draft position, after creating a smoother curve (with only 14 players per draft spot, it can be “bouncy” from slot to slot).

So let’s start with this completely non-controversial statement: Rookies provide upside, but also greater risk of under-performing. The market, overall, is properly valuing rookies. Only 44% of the rookies since 2000 who were drafted top 60 outperformed their ADP expectation for fantasy points. However, the mean performance was +5.7 points.

Doug Martin Ran Away from the Raiders

How does this happen? The booms can be pretty big, and so while the median rookie underperforms, the mean over-performs slightly.

If we divide them into groups, though, some interesting things emerge. The 97 rookies can divide almost evenly into three tiers: the starters (ADP better than 30), the top backups and committee backs (ADP 30 to 49), and the longshot backups (ADP 50 to 60). Let’s go through each group.

The Starters

Of the 32 running backs with an ADP of 29 or better, 19 outperformed the median expectation for their draft slot, averaging +12.3 fantasy points over expected. Exactly one quarter of them scored at least 200 fantasy points in a non-PPR format, which is a good benchmark for being a top running back. Those eight backs (in descending order of points): Portis, Martin, Forte, Peterson, Tomlinson, Lacy, Richardson, Lewis.

However, there is little correlation between where among the fantasy RB starters they were drafted and how they turned out as rookies. The five highest drafted were Ryan Mathews (ADP 10), Reggie Bush (ADP 12), Trent Richardson (ADP 14), Michael Bennett (ADP 14), and Ron Dayne (ADP 16).

Bishop Sankey

Given the upside that a decent number of rookie starters have provided, they aren’t a bad investment in a vacuum. Bishop Sankey is the only one who is being drafted as a guaranteed starter today, replacing Chris Johnson in Tennessee. Small word of caution: he wasn’t drafted highly, going in the second round. Some of this is the de-valuing of the position, but it’s safe to say he doesn’t compare to the Tomlinsons and Petersons as a prospect. The lowest drafted (in the real NFL draft) rookie to go so highly was Michael Bennett (27th overall in 2001). Sankey will be the highest drafted 2nd round pick ever, as previously that was J.J. Arrington (ADP 22). We’ve seen second round picks have big years (Portis, Lacy, Forte) so he can certainly do it, but there is both upside and downside with his current ADP.

Backups and Committee Backs

Here’s where it gets interesting. Most of the value with rookies has been with those who were recognized as starters entering the season. Of the 32 backs with an ADP of 30 to 49, the average points vs. expectation was -1.4, and 14 (44%) exceeded draft slot expectations.

Of backs drafted in this range, only Chris Johnson, a first round pick whose value was held down by the presence of Lendale White (file under “things that sound funny now”) exceeded 200 fantasy points, non-PPR. Only two others even got above 140 fantasy points: Le’Veon Bell (and his ADP was dropped because of a preseason injury, or he would have been drafted as a starter), and Anthony Thomas in 2001, who was viewed as likely to split carries with James Allen but moved into a workhorse role early in the year.

Terrance West

This is particular interesting this year, as several rookies will be part of potential platoons, or are viewed as upside picks in this range. The two highest, by current ADP, are Terrance West of Cleveland and Devonta Freeman of Atlanta. West is in competition with Ben Tate for touches, while Freeman will be trying to get an opportunity behind Steven Jackson, who just turned 31. They were selected as the 6th and 9th running backs taken, respectively, in the NFL draft, so they are ahead of other backs taken ahead of them in real life, based on perceived opportunity.

Yeah, you can argue deflation of running back value, but that’s at the top of the first round. Freeman was taken with pick 103. The average 9th RB off the board from 2000-2009 was at pick 105. Here’s the “platoon backs” that were being drafted this highly as rookies while being drafted outside the first two rounds of the NFL draft:

Rookie Running Backs, Platoon Later Rounds

There have been plenty of players outside the top two rounds who have emerged as rookies and surprised. The lesson here is that fantasy drafters haven’t necessarily been best at identifying who they will be.

Carlos Hyde (SF behind Gore), Tre Mason (STL behind Stacy), and Jeremy Hill (CIN behind Bernard) are also currently being drafted in the mid-to-late 40’s by ADP. One of these guys will probably be a factor, but identifying the correct one will be a challenge. My first guess is Mason, based on where this group of five backs is being drafted and the likelihood of producing if given the chance.

The Flyers

The rookies drafted 50th or later truly do represent the boom or bust nature of taking a rookie, but why taking a flyer on one deep, deep in the draft is not a bad idea. Only 10 of the 33 actually outperformed ADP expectation in points (meaning most were worthless, since the expected points is 50).

Of those 10, though, the booms were tremendous. Alfred Morris went from afterthought early in the preseason as many expected Roy Helu to start, to starter by the end of preseason. Steve Slaton moved up the depth chart in Houston by the start of the season. Jamaal Charles took over for a broken down Larry Johnson. DeMarco Murray provided decent value as a rookie.

Others weren’t even in the top 60, and really came off the radar. Maurice Jones-Drew was drafted in the second round, but his ADP was held down by Fred Taylor and Greg Jones — until Jones tore his ACL in the preseason finale (and most drafts were done by then). Zac Stacy was largely undrafted last year in St. Louis. Mike Anderson and Dominic Rhodes were on no one’s radar until injuries to star backs gave them a chance.

Andre Williams

This year, James White (in New England behind Vereen and Ridley), Charles Sims (Tampa Bay behind Doug Martin), and Andre Williams (in New York behind Rashad Jennings and David Wilson), are all in that flyer, possibly draft-able range.

I like Williams here. David Wilson is no guarantee to be healthy, and is already sitting out a week. Rashad Jennings is 29 and no lock to flourish in a new location. I’m not sure Jennings is a safer bet than Tate in Cleveland, so I would be monitoring this situation to see if Williams can move in front of the disappointing Wilson, and be this year’s Zac Stacy.

Related: Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno, and Elite Offenses Switching Backs
Related: Fantasy Football: Alfred Morris Didn’t Change, Washington’s Win Total Did
Related: An Early Look at the Top 6 Backs

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