Your 2012 fantasy football draft is entering the second round. With your first pick, you managed to scoop up a top-tiered quarterback, tight end or wide receiver. Looking at your rankings, updated ADP reports and who’s left on the board, it only makes sense to draft a running back in this round. By the time you’re up, the top 10 running backs on your cheat sheet and your ADP report have been taken. There’s only a few RBs left you feel comfortable starting every week as your RB1, so you grab the best available at the position. Confident in your pick? You shouldn’t be, and I’ll tell you why.
The running back position has long been considered the key position in fantasy football. In past years, players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson drew consensus No. 1 overall distinctions from the fantasy football community. In 2012, even without a surefire consensus No. 1 pick, the three players in contention for the top spot on most owners’ boards are all running backs. That’s because workhorse running backs are hard to find, and as a result, they are cherished each year in all fantasy leagues.
The effect of having (or not having) a workhorse running back trickles down throughout the rest of fantasy football drafts. Those that missed out on the top five or top 10 at the position feel like they have to play catch up with their running backs and generally make sure not to go too long without drafting at least one runner. There are usually a few players they feel have solid “floors” (worst-case scenarios for the player’s stats in a given year) while possessing the “ceilings” (best-case scenarios) to be a top-10 or even top-five talent when all is said and done.
But how accurate is that statement? I took a look at ADP data from the last five years to determine when the best time is to invest in running backs, and I was surprised to find the answer.
I used data from My Fantasy League to rank every running back selected in at least five percent of drafts on that site in each of the last five years by their Average Draft Position (”ADP”). Then, I gathered the fantasy points per game score of each player (”Avg”) according to FF Today, which has a great database for mining data from past seasons. In addition, I looked at the season total of each player and noted whether or not the player finished the top 10, top 20, top 30 or top 50 at his position.
The table below shows the performance of running backs selected at certain portions of the draft over the last five years. While each line of data represents 10 ADP positions (i.e., the No. 1 drafted running back through the RB drafted 10th), I’ve segmented the data after every five numbers, to mitigate the illogicality of lumping the RB20 in with the RB11 but separating the RB11 from the RB10. Also, by using the data in this fashion as opposed to just looking at five ADPs per line, we get to include 50 data points for each segment (10 RBs per year) rather than 25, taking us further from “small sample size” waters.
After the top 50 running backs, I’ve grouped the rest of the eligible players into one line of data (listed as “51-99″ but generally representing 27 to 35 RBs). The final line of data (”n/a”) involves players that did not qualify for the ADP rankings, having been selected in less than five percent of drafts, but that scored in the top 50 each season in total fantasy points at the RB position. Unlike with the rest of the top-50 data, which shows the percentage of running backs to appear in each of the top-ranked columns listed, the undrafted player data shows a count of the average players per year to make each top-ranked list.
|ADP||Avg||Top 10?||Top 20?||Top 30?||Top 50?|
The “1-10″ line shows us the value of drafting a running back in the first round, and when compared to the the next three lines, shows in particular the value in owning one of the top five running backs drafted on average each season. A running back drafted in the top 10 is twice as likely to finish in the top 10 at the end of the year as a player drafted in the second 10, while players selected sixth through 15th only show a four percent better chance of reaching the top ten as ones selected 16th through 25th. Similar gaps exist in the data when looking at top-20 and top-30 players — the top five running backs clearly demonstrate a much lower risk of failing.
But the interesting part of the table comes through when comparing the “11-20″ and “16-25″ rows — they are virtually identical with regards to players that land in the top 10, top 20 and top 30 at the end of the year. Even more surprising is that players drafted 11th through 20th finish in the top 50 just 60 percent of the time, a number topped by every line of data through “36-45.” However, when we look at the 21st through 30th running back drafted and compare to the two lines of data above, we see there isn’t much of a difference. The RBs average sixth-tenths of a point less than the group of 10 directly above, which in turn averages sixth-tenth of a point less than those directly above it. But in terms of reaching the top 10, top 20 and top 30, the difference in negligible. And when looking at the top 50 data of the three groups, the later running backs are somehow more safe.
Continuing through the table, there are larger breaks in the next two lines of data (from “21-30″ to “26-35″ and from “26-35″ to “31-40″). These indicate that while there may not be much of a difference between the running backs selected in the second 10 and the third 10 of ADP, the gap does grow from the third 10 to the fourth 10. We also see that running back selected 41st to 45th in the draft may be just as viable as those selected 31st to 35th, based on the similarities between the “31-40″ and the “36-45″ data. But once you get outside the top 40 running back drafted, things start to become a crapshoot.
What does this mean for your draft? For starters, it makes the most sense to grab a top-five back in the first round. Right now, MFL has Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Ryan Mathews and Chris Johnson as the top five in ADP, though Mathews is surely to fall out of the group with his recent injury by the time the season starts (Maurice Jones-Drew is sixth and is the most likely to join the top five). If you can’t manage to get one, running backs in the 6-10 range are also safe bets. However, be very wary of running backs ranked 11th through 20th in ADP. In fact, running backs selected in the 21-30 range may be just as safe while only costing a limited amount of points per game on average and allowing you to grab an elite player at another position when you bypass the RBs in the 11-20 range.
R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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