FantasyPros recently looked at RB dead-zone players to target, but today’s focus will be on dead-zone RBs to avoid. For those new to the concept, the RB dead zone is generally referred to as Rounds 3-6 in fantasy drafts where RB hit rates have been historically poor. In the past three seasons, 63.4% of RBs drafted in the dead zone had a season-end rank that was worse than their preseason ADP rank within the RB position group (e.g. in 2021, Mike Davis had an ADP of 44, and was drafted as the RB21, but finished the season as the RB35). With only a 36.6% hit rate, fantasy managers shouldn’t completely avoid RBs in the dead zone, but they must tread carefully while selecting RBs after the first two rounds.
The most critical part of navigating the dead zone is understanding why it has been a risky proposition for fantasy managers to target RBs in this range of drafts. In the past three seasons, there’s been an average of 14.3 RBs whose ADP fell within the first two rounds of 12-team PPR formats. There has also been an average of 30.6 RBs whose ADP fell within the first six rounds of fantasy drafts. This means, on average, the RB dead zone consists of the RBs ranked between RB14 and RB30 each season.
In the last three seasons, the RB1 in PPR leagues has averaged 407.3 points and the RB14 has averaged 209.3 points. In other words, the RB14 has only accounted for 51.3% of the RB1’s point production on average. Draft rankings are never perfect, but fantasy experts (especially here at FantasyPros) are incredibly dialed in when it comes to developing accurate player rankings. They are experts for a reason. It’s probable that some of the RBs ranked between 14 and 30 outproduce their projections, but it’s important to understand that when you are drafting an RB from the third through the sixth round of a fantasy draft, you are more likely than not selecting a player who will provide around 50% or less of the production of some of the RBs who were taken just a few rounds earlier. When thought about this way, targeting RBs in the dead zone, especially in the top half of the dead zone, doesn’t seem like a wise strategy when there is better value to be found at other positions.
Looking at the players from other positions who have been selected in the RB dead zone helps us better understand why targeting RBs in this range isn’t the optimal strategy. In 2021 alone, the following players were selected within the RB dead zone (2021 season-end rank in parenthesis):
Cooper Kupp (WR – LAR) (WR1)
Josh Allen (QB – BUF) (QB1)
Mark Andrews (TE – BAL) (TE1)
Justin Herbert (QB – LAC) (QB2)
George Kittle (TE – SF) (TE4)
Aaron Rodgers (QB – GB) (QB6)
Kyle Pitts (TE – ATL) (TE6)
Dak Prescott (QB – DAL) (QB7)
Diontae Johnson (WR – PIT) (WR8)
Mike Evans (WR – TB) (WR9)
Kyler Murray (QB – ARI) (QB10)
Keenan Allen (WR – LAC) (WR11)
Lamar Jackson (QB – BAL) (QB15)
Chris Godwin (WR – TB) (WR15)
Russell Wilson (QB – DEN) (QB16)
Tyler Lockett (WR – SEA) (WR16)
D.J. Moore (WR – CAR) (WR18)
CeeDee Lamb (WR – DAL) (WR19
Tee Higgins (WR – CIN) (WR24)
Now here’s a complete list of the 2021 dead-zone RBs whose season-end rank fell within RB2 territory:
Josh Jacobs (RB – LV) (RB12)
Damien Harris (RB – NE) (RB14)
D’Andre Swift (RB – DET) (RB15)
It’s not impossible to find RB value in the dead zone, but there is so much talent at the other positions in this range of fantasy drafts that it’s likely not wise to heavily invest in RBs in Rounds 3-6. So with this understanding, here are five dead-zone RBs to avoid in your 2022 fantasy drafts.
Antonio Gibson (RB – WAS) (ADP 36, RB19)
Gibson has been hyped up within the fantasy community each of the past two offseasons, and although productive, he hasn’t lived up to lofty expectations. Gibson, who has a three-down skill set, enters the 2022 season with expectations of having a reduced workload. Gibson’s receiving upside is and has been limited due to Washington’s affinity for third-down specialist J.D. McKissic, but his early-down work is now in jeopardy as well with the team drafting former Alabama RB Brian Robinson. Given Washington’s crowded backfield, Gibson’s injury history, and HC Ron Rivera stating that the team wants to lighten his workload, Gibson appears to be primed for a disappointing 2022 season.
Josh Jacobs (RB – LV) (ADP 38, RB20)
Not much has gone well for Josh Jacobs’ fantasy stock this offseason. First, the Raiders hired Josh McDaniels as their new head coach and he is expected to use an RB committee similar to how he utilized his RBs in New England, meaning Jacobs will likely see a reduced workload. Next, the team signed Brandon Bolden and Ameer Abdullah and drafted former Georgia RB Zamir White to add to a running back room that already contained Jacobs and Kenyan Drake. New Raiders GM Dave Ziegler then announced during the NFL Draft weekend that the team would not be picking up Jacobs’ fifth-year option, a sign that the team doesn’t see him in their plans beyond the 2022 season. Given these events, Jacobs’ best-case scenario is likely to be a touchdown-dependent committee back. That’s a role that can be valuable for fantasy managers, but it isn’t worth the late 3rd/early fourth-round price tag.
Elijah Mitchell (RB – SF) (ADP 49, RB23)
Mitchell was a fantasy darling in his rookie season, going from undrafted free agent and Week 2 waiver-wire target to finishing as the RB26 overall and RB20 in PPG in PPR formats. The start of Mitchell’s career has been a great story, but three main concerns cause reason to believe the good times may be coming to an end for Mitchell’s fantasy managers. First, Mitchell has essentially no role in the 49ers’ passing game, so almost all of his production comes on the ground, yet his underlying rushing metrics are very average. Second, the 49ers are expected to transition to Trey Lance as their QB in 2022. Lance is an elite rushing QB who will likely steal goal-line rushing opportunities similar to how Josh Allen has vultured goal-line carries from Buffalo RBs the past few seasons. Third, there is no guarantee that Mitchell maintains his early-down role. Kyle Shanahan can at times seem unpredictable in regards to how he uses his RBs from week to week. The 49ers, who already had a crowded RB room, spent a third-round pick on former LSU RB Tyrion Davis-Price in April’s NFL Draft. There’s a nonzero chance that drafting Mitchell is the equivalent of lighting your fourth-round pick on fire.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC) (ADP 56, RB25)
The first two seasons of Edwards-Helaire’s NFL career have been nothing short of disappointing. Pegged as a better version of Brian Westbrook upon being drafted in the first round by an Andy Reid-led Chiefs offense, expectations were through the roof from Day 1. Two years later, Edwards-Helaire has put together season-end ranks of RB22 and RB46 and has seen his draft stock fall into the dead zone. Edwards-Helaire has simply not been effective on the field, ranking 43rd in PFF’s player grades among RBs in 2021, and has done little to make fantasy managers believe the Chiefs will give him a featured role in 2022. Throw in the offseason signing of Ronald Jones (effective early-down rusher), the team re-signing Jerick McKinnon (passing-down specialist whose role increased down the stretch in 2021), and the drafting of Isiah Pacheco (rookie speed-demon RB), and it’s easy to visualize a scenario where Edwards-Helaire’s role in the offense diminishes in 2022.
Damien Harris (RB – NE) (ADP 65, RB27)
Harris had a breakout season in 2021, finishing as the RB14 while scoring the second-most rushing TDs (15) in the league. But the TDs that propelled Harris to becoming a high-end RB2 are what should concern fantasy managers as we head into a new season. Harris is the 2021 poster boy for TD regression with a whopping 42.9% of his fantasy points last season coming from TDs. His fall from grace would be significant if he doesn’t repeat in the TD department. With the emergence of Rhamondre Stevenson as an early-down option, James White expected to take passing-down work when healthy, and the team drafting RB Pierre Strong, Harris is slated to be just one piece of an RB committee. Harris is no doubt an impressive talent, receiving the second-highest RB grade per PFF last season, but his upside is severely capped given his current situation. Harris may live up to his current ADP of RB27, but with limited upside, he isn’t worth the selection in the sixth round when other players with league-winning potential are still available at this point in fantasy drafts.
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