Dealing with the Hype: Rookie Running Backs
Every year, professional fantasy pundits get excited about a few running backs that seem to be climbing the depth charts in the preseason. Shortly thereafter, fantasy owners everywhere hear the news and guys like David Cobb get drafted ahead of guys like David Johnson, despite NFL General Managers telling us not to make such mistakes. What happened? Why did a guy who went 138th in the NFL draft get picked in fantasy leagues before a guy drafted 86th that same season. Easy. Cobb performed well in the preseason and his opportunity seemed greater. But should we have known this was a mistake?
I went back and looked at five years of rookie running backs to try and figure out where fantasy owners go wrong. As a dynasty running back skeptic, I’m rarely one to pay for lead backs and went into this analysis anticipating rookie running backs to be little more than a roll of the roulette wheel. However, I found clear trends suggesting certain rookie running back choices are relatively safe, while others are a recipe for disaster.
Before going into the data, a quick discussion of methodology is necessary. I looked at the NFL draft position and the fantasy ADP of rookie running backs from 2012 to 2016. For ADP, I used MyFantasyLeague’s keeper draft averages for the month of August. I excluded June and July months because I wanted to incorporate some training camp and preseason movers. Then, I looked at where fantasy owners drafted the same running backs the following season, prior to their sophomore campaigns. The outputs I have included are 1) Percent change in ADP from Rookie season to Sophomore season 2) The percentage of players whose value was higher prior to their Sophomore season 3) The percentage of players in a given category that fantasy owners didn’t draft amongst the top 250 players prior to their Sophomore seasons. Thus, this analysis doesn’t tell you how good these running backs are or how productive their careers will be. Instead, it suggests what happens to the fantasy value of these running backs after one season in the NFL. For NFL GMs, this analysis is close to useless, but for fantasy owners, this can tell you which players are likely to improve as assets and which are likely to fall off a cliff. Now, to the data!
NFL Draft vs Sophomore Season Fantasy ADP
First, I looked at whether or not players drafted early tended to improve their fantasy ADP in their sophomore seasons. For top 25 players, we are dealing with a very small sample size, but later in the draft, there starts to be enough of a sample to start seeing some trends. I anticipated that highly pedigreed running backs would be mistakes because of injury issues or rapid turnover. Instead, guys drafted in the top 100 of NFL drafts increase in value more than half the time and only one out of 32 guys went undrafted in their sophomore season.
But what about Trent Richardson? He is a perfect example of someone who illuminates the quirks of this type of analysis. Despite a disappointing rookie season, he was the 9th running back taken in dynasty draft his sophomore season. Basically, high draft pedigree guys have a lot more leeway to disappoint and still remain as trade assets the following season. Whereas guys without draft pedigree will likely plummet in value if they don’t perform. As a fantasy owner, particularly in a league with lots of trading, you should care deeply about the future expected value of your assets.
Where Fantasy Owners Go Wrong
Below, I have done the same analysis, but looked at how fantasy ADP correlates with sophomore season fantasy ADP.
Immediately, the decline in value of players drafted between 50 and 100 range in fantasy drafts jumps off the page. Of the 22 guys drafted between 50th and 100th in the NFL draft, half of them increased in value the next season, compared to 33% of the 18 guys who went between 50 and 100 in fantasy drafts. Furthermore, that same group of fantasy draftees had their average value decrease by 55% for their sophomore seasons, compared to an 8% increase for that category in NFL drafts.
While there is a lot of information in this data set, I’m hesitant, due to small sample size, to make any conclusions about the 14% increase of rookie running backs drafted outside the top 200 in fantasy leagues. Likewise, the percentage of players who increased in value for each category is not necessarily predictive. I’ll let the readers come up with their own bold conclusions that conveniently correlate with what’s best for their respective squads. Instead, I want to exclusively focus on what I see to be the most compelling result of this analysis.
Think Twice Before Passing On Third Rounders For Depth Chart Darlings
Fantasy owners are severely underperforming the NFL draft for top 100 NFL draftees. In addition, fantasy owners struggle when drafting guys between ADP 50 and 150, which is the range where fantasy owners chose the aforementioned David Cobb. There will be anecdotes of 6th rounders outperforming 3rd rounders, of course. However, on average, fantasy owners are reaching for later round picks based on hype that builds in training camp and preseason. While I wouldn’t encourage owners to ignore what happens from June to the end of August, I’d suggest looking at late round running backs with a slightly more skeptical eye and taking a second look at that top 100 NFL draft pick that fell through the cracks.
Who Fits the Bill in 2017?
Here, I’m looking for guys drafted in fantasy before running backs who went before them in the NFL draft. Jamaal Williams and Samaje Perine were the 6th and 7th running backs taken in fantasy drafts despite being the 9th and 13th running backs taken in the NFL draft. On the flip side, fantasy owners chose Alvin Kamara, D’Onta Foreman, James Conner and Tarik Cohen 8th, 10th, 15th and 19th amongst rookie running backs in fantasy drafts, while GMs drafted them as the 5th, 7th, 8th and 10th running backs respectively. While Cohen and Kamara’s performances in week 1 probably led to a rapid rise in their stocks, D’Onta Foreman and James Conner both fit the bill as potential value targets, while I wouldn’t hesitate to sell Perine or Williams if their trade value remains in line with their ADP.