Was RB-Heavy Strategy Effective in 2017?

May 29, 2018

Running backs can make or break a season. They are vital to a championship-caliber squad. They give you the dual threat of rushing and receiving that can produce higher weekly averages. The question, though, is how effective was it to go RB-heavy in your fantasy football draft last year?

To answer this, I want to introduce a new approach to evaluating RBs. There is some terminology I am going to use to help describe the RB-heavy draft strategy. The first is what I am going to be calling the “hit rate.” The hit rate measures if a player had maintained or improved upon their preseason ranking throughout the year and ended even with or ahead of their initial projection.

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When looking at the top 5 preseason rankings provided by FantasyPros expert consensus rankings, you will see that there was only a 40% hit rate. The only players that were ranked within the top 5 and stayed there were Le’Veon Bell and Melvin Gordon. The names that fell out of the top 5 were David Johnson, LeSean McCoy, and Devonta Freeman. If you drafted an RB with your first-round pick there would be a majority 60% miss rate among the top 5 RBs. It was more likely than not that if you went with one of the top five RBs you were disappointed with the return. It displays how volatile the running back position is. Take, for example, David Johnson. He got injured during the first game of the season. That was due to an injury that was impossible to predict. Others like LeSean McCoy and Devonta Freeman, even though they finished 7th and 13th respectively in PPR formats, did not play up to their top 5 ADP. Both of them struggled with consistency issues as both offenses disappointed, which led to the lower player rank.

If we decided to broaden the spectrum to the top 10 RBs last year, the 40% hit rate stays as only Bell, Gordon, Jordan Howard, and Todd Gurley performed up to their draft price. The only notable other RB is LeSean McCoy who was the 7th best RB last year. We aren’t counting him as a hit because he performed worse than his ADP. With the six running backs in the top 10 RBs not performing to their ADP, the odds were not in your favor of acquiring the dominant RB duo you sought. A 60% miss rate is something that should catch your eye. You want your players in the earlier rounds to become the building blocks for your team and with an RB-heavy strategy last year, you probably struggled and were haunted by weekly inconsistencies.

We wanted to see how likely it is the RBs you draft in the higher rounds play up to their end of season rank. Accordingly, we looked at the top 20 RBs. There was a 50% hit rate, which shows how there is the same probability in selecting an RB to withstand their value or one that fails to meet expectations. That is very risky when considering you could draft someone with as much upside as Todd Gurley or you could draft someone who ruined fantasy seasons last year, such as DeMarco Murray. The risk that the individual drafter takes is solely on how they want to draft their team. It is important, though, to point out a very large trend last year that led many fantasy owners to lost seasons. The RB position is erratic and can carry large, league-winning, upside for your team. The flipside is that in order to acquire such a talent you need to be willing to bear the massive risk as well.

This article is to illustrate how inefficient it was to draft RBs early last year. Most league winners were able to discover the Kareem Hunts and the Alvin Kamaras later in the draft. The largest part of drafting is being able to discover value. It will be interesting to see if last year’s trend continues. If it does, then look for future drafts to change how RBs are valued and selected. When it comes to this year, though, be wary if you want to implement the strategy of filling your first few roster spots with RBs.

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Matthew Fleisher is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Matthew, check out his archive and follow him @FFMattFleisher.

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