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Was a Running-Back Heavy Draft Strategy Effective in 2019? (Fantasy Football)

by Sam Hoppen | @samhoppen | Featured Writer
Jun 24, 2020

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Many will argue that the running back position is the most important position in all of fantasy football. Players like Christian McCaffrey and Todd Gurley have the ability to carry (no pun intended) fantasy football teams to winning a championship.

For those who believe this, a running-back heavy draft is the most profitable draft strategy, but was that really the case if you used it in 2019? In this article, I dive into what the 2019 season gave us for those who implemented a running-back heavy draft strategy. Included in here, I look at what contributes to players outperforming their ADP as well as a preview for the 2020 season.

All Average Draft Position (ADP) data comes from Fantasy Football Calculator using 12-team Half-PPR leagues.

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Rocky Top

Overall, the top of draft boards was dominated by running backs. The first eight picks off the board, according to ADP, were all running backs. Furthermore, running backs comprised 50 percent of the players taken in the first four rounds of a 12-team draft.

Player Team Running Back ADP Running Back Overall Finish Difference
Saquon Barkley NYG 1 10 -9
Alvin Kamara NO 2 12 -10
Christian McCaffrey CAR 3 1 2
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 4 4 0
David Johnson ARI 5 38 -33
James Conner PIT 6 33 -27
Le’Veon Bell NYJ 7 17 -10
Nick Chubb CLE 8 7 1

Taking a deeper dive into those first eight picks, we find that only three of them – McCaffrey, Elliott, and Chubb – were truly worth the high draft capital. Each of them finished with a higher overall running back ranking than where they were drafted. However, on a points-per-game basis, only McCaffrey finished with a higher ranking than where he was drafted. A major part of their overall success was merely their ability to stay healthy, as they were the only players of those top eight to play in all 16 games last season.

On the flip side, Johnson, Conner, and Bell all struggled with injuries while severely underperforming. On average, these three players finished 23 spots lower in their overall ranking than where they were drafted.

In fact, the top 12 running backs as a group did not perform exceptionally well. The average difference between where a top-12 back was drafted and where he finished overall was a seven-spot drop, and only five of them finished in the top 12 at season’s end – not great, Bob. This 42 percent hit rate is considerably worse than the 51 percent hit rate we’ve seen in the six years prior.

Overall Running Back Landscape

While the players drafted at the top of drafts are the foundation of your team, it’s important that we take stock of the position as a whole. Of the 63 players in this sample of ADP data, only 27 of them (43 percent) finished higher among running backs than where he was drafted. This means that 36 (57 percent) finished lower than where he was drafted.

Three members of the top 10 at the end of the season – Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, and Mark Ingram – all had an ADP in the fourth round or later last year. So if you were lucky enough to land one of those guys in the middle rounds of your draft, you scored big!

Player Team Running Back ADP Running Back Overall Finish Difference
Mark Ingram BAL 21 8 13
Derrick Henry TEN 23 3 20
Austin Ekeler LAC 29 6 23

Furthermore, over a third of the running backs that finished in the top 20 were drafted after the third round of drafts last year – an incredible rate for those employing the Zero RB strategy last year. As mentioned above, a large factor in determining whether a player is able to outperform his ADP is his ability to stay healthy. In 2019, 25 of the running backs in this ADP data set played in all 16 games. Unsurprisingly, 14 of them (56 percent) were able to outperform their ADP by the end of the season.

Finally, going back to an earlier look at how players drafted in the top 12 finished relative to their ADP, I expanded the scope to top-24 and top-36 drafted players.

ADP Average Difference in ADP vs. Overall RB Finish
Top 12 RB -7.1
Top 24 RB -4.6
Top 36 RB -5.3

As you can see in the chart above, the difference between ADP and overall finish is not as pronounced when looking at more players. Additionally, last year, 19 of the top 24 drafted running backs finished inside the top 24, which is an astounding rate.So what does this mean? Well, the RB1s and RB2s that are drafted as such typically stay in that range, even if they’re a couple of spots off from where they were originally drafted.

2020 Outlook

Looking ahead to 2020, many fantasy football pundits are recommending drafters start with two running backs in the first two rounds because of how steep of a drop off there is after the first dozen running backs. Based on current ADP, the top of the draft is once again littered with running backs as they’re going off the board as the first four picks and as 10 of the first 14 picks.

What’s crazy, though, is that only 14 running backs are being taken in the next 48 picks! Because of this, there are more wide receivers (25) being taken in the first five rounds of drafts than running backs (24).

Based on what we learned from 2019 and how this year is shaping up to be, you may want to think twice about how much you invest in early-round running backs as this suggests there may be more value at running back in the middle of drafts. Though it’s difficult to predict injury, you should consider taking players with a track record of health. As Bill Parcells once said, “the best ability is availability.”

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Sam Hoppen is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Sam, check out his archive and follow him @SamHoppen.

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