NFL football games are often won between the trenches, but fantasy football championships are born at the running back position. Bonafide stud running backs are crucial to league-winning rosters – that’s why RBs are currently flying off the board in the first two rounds of Underdog Fantasy best ball drafts.
It’s no secret who the league’s top dogs are in fantasy – Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Dalvin Cook, Jonathan Taylor, Derrick Henry, and Najee Harris – but the talent falls off quickly outside the first few rounds.
That doesn’t mean we should avoid the position after the heavy hitters, though. There’s value to be had with middle- to late-round running backs; you just need to know where to look.
I’ve collected a sample of 105 running backs since 2017 who were drafted outside the top 24 (or went undrafted) and outproduced their ADP in PPR formats. The goal is to find common themes among these league-winning running backs – like Elijah Mitchell, Cordarrelle Patterson, James Conner, and Leonard Fournette – and apply the findings to the upcoming 2022 season.
Most productive RBs drafted outside top-24 since 2017 (PPR)
|Mark Ingram II||NO||2017||RB25||RB6|
|Duke Johnson Jr.||CLE||2017||RB38||RB11|
Every year, several running backs drafted outside the top 24 finish as fantasy RB1s in PPR scoring. But identifying and drafting these backs is easier said than done.
To start, we need to look at when these specific backs were taken in drafts to determine if there’s a sweet spot for RBs primed to smash their expected outcomes in a specific ADP range.
The sample size includes running backs drafted outside the top 24 who beat their ADP. But breaking them into subsets of ADP ranges offers a clearer picture of the best value spot at the RB position.
The RB3 range (RB25-RB38) presents the greatest hit rate for fantasy running backs to return a mid-range RB2 (RB17.2) finish. That’s not Earth-shattering news – undervalued starting RBs are often selected in this range between rounds eight through 10. There are also plenty of RBs in crowded backfields and backs who offer serious pass-catching chops.
The year prior, the two backs drafted in this range that hit last season were Ronald Jones II and D’Andre Swift. Both finished top-20 in fantasy points per game after emerging as the most reliable backs in their respective backfields.
We didn’t see as many instances of backs emerging as RB1s from ambiguous backfields from 2017 to 2019. It was mostly real-life RB2s and pass-catching backs who vastly outproduced their ADP.
Running backs like Mark Ingram (2017) and Austin Ekeler (2019) played in committees for large parts of the season but still earned fantasy RB1 status. PPR backs like Duke Johnson Jr. (2017), Tarik Cohen (2018, 2019), and James White (2019) also returned solid value, albeit not to the extent of Ingram or Ekeler.
Every RB in this range who outperformed ADP finished as a top-27 option except for Carter (RB29), with 70% finishing as a top-20 option.
Still, it’s surprising that almost none of the backs taken in this range saw a bump because of an injury.
After the RB3 range, the average fantasy finish flattens across the board as a barbell. So, in essence, RB40 has essentially the same chance of hitting as RB65-plus. In reality, running backs who go undrafted in traditional leagues (RB65-plus) have a higher fantasy finish on average compared to the RB39-RB62 range.
The RB39-RB50 range offers the No.2 runners like Jones II, Rhamondre Stevenson, Alexander Mattison, Rachaad White, Isaiah Spiller, Carter, James Robinson, Darrell Henderson, and Tyrion Davis-Price. Still, those backs have some of the worst-hit rates among the group because they need an injury to another RB in their backfield to be a worthwhile fantasy starter.
That’s exactly how this ADP range played out in 2021.
Running backs Sony Michel, Conner, Tony Pollard, Mattison, Stevenson, Chuba Hubbard, Rashaad Penny, Darrel Williams, Ingram, Justin Jackson, Kenneth Gainwell, and Devontae Booker ALL saw boosted roles because of a clear injury, not necessarily because they carved out a massive role on an offense.
Furthermore, the RBs who finished as top-25 options from 2017 to 2020 were either pass-catchers or part of an ambiguous backfield situation. None were thrust into a massive role because of an injury. That wasn’t the case last season, with Conner making the massive leap with Chase Edmonds hurt. However, Conner was still a top-20 back even when Edmonds was healthy.
The results were more or less similar from RB51-RB62, except we saw even fewer direct backups put up fantasy points. Conner was the lone exception, with his insane No. 6 overall finish in 2018 on the back of Le’Veon Bell‘s season-long holdout. Darrel Williams was the other exception, finishing as the RB19 in the wake of Clyde Edwards-Helaire‘s injury-plagued second season.
We’ve rarely seen undrafted backups finish as solid fantasy contributors. Players like Mike Davis (2020), Wayne Gallman (2020), Jerick McKinnon (2017), T.J. Yeldon (2018), Mitchell (2021), and Devonta Freeman (2021) have broken the mold. Still, those players weren’t marquee backups we could target before fantasy drafts kicked off in late August/early September. They weren’t being drafted in the first place.
That’s because we (as fantasy football players) are overconfident in our ability to label an RB the premier backup on his team when the NFL team could have drastically different plans for its backfield in the event of an injury.
Fantasy gamers are selling themselves short by chasing the “one injury away” idea. The data suggests that fantasy football drafters are much better off either targeting running backs in ambiguous backfields or those who can be used in the receiving game.
Drafting the straight handcuff to a stud RB makes sense in theory, but more often than not, they just rot away on rosters behind the healthy starter – and even after an injury, they don’t always step up. This is exceptionally costly in the best ball formats where there’s no access to the waiver wire.
Premium backups also don’t come cheap. We now know that the rate of RBs going several rounds later ascending to top-24 status is equal, if not higher. Thus, if you decide to take a straight-up backup in a best ball format, you’re much better off waiting until the very last round. And your selection should be one of the less-popular backup RBs.
Pollard‘s Underdog ADP as the RB29 (Round 8) is exceptionally high for a back whose upside is tied so closely to Ezekiel Elliott. Pollard needs a Zeke injury to be a league-winner, and the probability of that happening doesn’t line up with Pollard’s cost. Elliott has missed one game due to injury during his six-year NFL career.
Why draft Pollard when there are cheaper RBs like Kareem Hunt (RB32), Alexander Mattison (RB40), and Melvin Gordon III (RB36)? They have the same immense upside in the case of an injury and a current role in the cases of Hunt/MG3 alongside the incumbent starter.
This research has made me want to look harder at pass-catching running backs like Cordarrelle Patterson (RB30), James Cook (RB34), Edmonds (RB35), Nyheim Hines (RB45), Gainwell (RB49), and Rex Burkhead (RB76) because they’re almost all locks to finish well above their ADP in PPR leagues.
The most ambiguous backfields in fantasy football are the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Falcons.
That makes late-round players from those teams like Michel, Derrick Gore, Burkhead, Chris Evans, Dameon Pierce, Davis-Price, Penny, and Tyler Allgeier worth dart-throws, as some are likely to stumble into fantasy production. Some are going in the final round of early offseason drafts or undrafted.
In the RB25-RB38 highest hit range, Dillon, Edwards-Helaire, Patterson, Hunt, Singletary/Cook, Penny, Stevenson, and Gordon should be the primary targets. Based on the historical hit rates, there is a 70% chance they will finish top-20 at the position.
And that’s because their profiles make up mostly real-life RB2s and pass-catching backs who vastly outproduced their ADP. They don’t necessarily NEED an injury to thrive. To keep things simple, be mindful of drafting a few RBs before the top-40 ADP cutoff.
In the next range (RB39-RB50), I’d try to avoid overly aggressive stockpiling “injury away” backs instead of focusing on pass-catchers and ambiguous backfield backs. Same for RB51 through RB62. Be price sensitive because there are a plethora of RBs that would flirt with top-24 status should an injury occur. Scoop up the values of the players that have proven they can deliver when called upon.
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