Fantasy Football Draft Dominator — Finding Value at RB
Which running backs are overvalued or undervalued heading into your draft?
It’s the week before Labor Day and that means you’re probably making your final preparations for this year’s fantasy drafts. Who’s your top sleeper? Should you go with the Zero RB strategy? Who is this year’s Cam Newton or David Johnson? And are we really taking WRs with the top three picks now?
Fantasy football is all about value. The biggest mistake drafters make is picking a few guys they like and going hard after them to a fault. Almost any player in fantasy is potentially valuable — it just depends on what you’re investing in them. So use Average Draft Position (ADP) to get a sense of where guys will go, and watch for value that drops.
Never go into your draft with a set target for each round. Your target should be taking the value available at each pick. I don’t like drafting Cam Newton this year — but I’ll take him happily if he’s there in the 6th round instead of the 3rd. It’s all about relative value and sorting out the studs from the duds.
Overvalued — assuming the RB position is basically dead
One of the most common mistakes in fantasy football is when folks see something happen one year and assume it is will continue and escalate even further the next year. Cam Newton was awesome — he’ll be even better! The Ravens were terrible — I guess they’re awful now!
Last year was an absolutely brutal year for running backs. Drafting RBs is always difficult. On average just 3–4 of the previous top 10 repeat from one year to the next, the least stable of any position. But last year was even worse, with only a few star RBs and arguably no superstars at all, plus pretty minimal depth along the way.
Last year’s #1 RB Davonta Freeman scored 248 points in standard scoring. Both of the two years before last there were 3 RBs with more points than that, and each of the two years before that there were 4. And it’s just just at #1 that scoring was down last year. #10 RB Latavius Murray’s 166 points were down about 25 from the #10 RB the last few years. #20 was down too. And so we come to the obvious conclusion — RBs are dead.
Dig a little deeper though. Last year saw 13 different RBs average 12+ ppg — compared to 12, 12, and 11 the previous three years. Same as usual. The real problem was that Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, and LeVeon Bell all had big injuries (and Ingram and McCoy missed time) and we forgot how valuable those guys were and instead decided there just aren’t any good RBs left.
There are good RBs out there, and they will help your fantasy team win. Last year randomly just had an especially high number of injuries. So instead of assuming RB scoring will continue to plummet, look at more than just last year. History says this year’s #1 RB should be closer to 300 points than 248, so if you like Gurley or Peterson early, go for it. And there are still plenty of important and valuable RBs out there — just make sure you have a bunch of options so you can survive all the injuries and tough matchups.
Fantasy football is about supply and demand. If it’s true that there are more good receivers than ever — and it is — then that makes them less valuable relatively speaking, not more valuable. And it makes those top-scoring RBs all the more valuable even if you don’t get them for all 16 games or for 25 touches a game like the good old days.
So where do we find the value?
Undervalued — Devonta Freeman
It happens every year. A player has an awesome year, finishes atop the fantasy rankings, and blindly goes #1 in every draft the next year while everyone… wait, what? Freeman is RB9 and going in the middle of the 2nd round?!
Remember how there are around twelve RBs a year that average 12 ppg? Well last year Devonta Freeman had that many points in 12 of his 16 games! He was really good and he was really consistent too, his consistency coming from a top zone-blocking scheme and almost 100 targets in the passing game.
This year everyone is afraid of Tevin Coleman stealing some touches, and he probably will. But Freeman’s value in the passing game and at the goal line should keep him quite useful. Even if you take 400 yards away from Devonta’s totals last year, he still would’ve ranked #2 among RBs!
Should he be a top 5 pick? Maybe not. But he’s a steal at #18. And if you’re really worried about Tevin Coleman, that’s fine, go ahead and pick him up in the 10th round or later. That’s a pretty easy way to lock up a safe RB1.
Overvalued — taking a RB between picks 6–18 because you just feel like you have to
So you’re sitting at #7. Gurley and Peterson are gone, as they should be. You can take Elliott, Johnson, Miller, Bell, or Charles, the next five RBs on the board — and if you don’t, you’ll leave the first two rounds without one.
And that’s ok. There are plenty of RBs to be had later in the draft and there are only so many stud WRs and just one Gronkowski. You usually can’t win your league in your first few picks, but you can definitely lose it. If you pick a RB that busts here — and remember, odds are strong that you will, probably around 60–70% — you are playing catch up all season.
Elliott is a rookie playing with a rookie QB. Johnson has never carried the load for a full season and still might not. Miller is on a new team with an unproven QB. Bell is suspended three games and returning from injury. Charles is still not healthy after another serious injury. A couple of these RBs will probably be really good, but you’re basically guessing.
I like Elliott enough but man that’s a high pick. I’d personally take Bell out of that mix if I had to pick one, especially if he slides. But honestly I’d rather just take Gronk, Dez, Hopkins, etc and grab some RBs later.
The Zero RB strategy isn’t about ignoring RB entirely. It’s choosing quantity over quality. It means investing a bunch of draft picks to give you RB options, just not forcing yourself to take them early. Don’t force a pick.
Undervalued — LeSean McCoy
Since McCoy became a starting RB, here is his standard league PPG each year going backwards: 12, 11, 18, 13, 19, and 15. And remember — 12 or higher makes you a good lead RB in fantasy.
McCoy always carries some injury risk, but he also always produces when healthy. Last year he was a top ten RB even with backup Karlos Williams vulturing an absurd nine TDs. Yet McCoy is being drafted at RB10 at the end of the 2nd round. This is incredibly rare — a safe, low-floor early RB pick. If he misses a few games, so be it. That’s what backups are for.
Overvalued — Eddie Lacy
Owners are talking themselves into Fat Eddie in the 2nd yet again. I don’t get it. He was better in the second half last season, and the whole offense will be better with Jordy Nelson back, but the presumed upside just isn’t here.
Lacy only gets 12–14 carries and a couple catches a game, and he doesn’t do enough with them to be a stud RB. The only chance for Lacy to finish at RB8 where he’s being drafted is for him to put up double digit TDs, and that’s just too unreliable. And remember — that’s the upside.
Lacy is this year’s Jeremy Hill draft pick.
Undervalued — Jeremy Hill
Oh hey, speak of the devil. Hill is a lot like Eddie Lacy — he’s the lead back in a high-powered offense but doesn’t get many catches and has burned a lot of owners in the past. The big difference? Lacy costs you a 2nd while Hill is available in the 4th or 5th.
Hill lacks superstar upside because of his lack of value in the passing game, but he looks like a very safe RB2, or RB1 if you go with the Zero RB strategy. Cincy should lean on the run game a bit more this year, Hill looks good in preseason, and he has been a consistent TD scorer. Another nice safe pick.
Overvalued — Doug Martin
Martin played all 16 games last year — but just 17 combined the previous two seasons. He doesn’t catch many passes and he doesn’t score many TDs, just 10 over the last three years. His value is almost entirely dependent on rushing yards. That makes him a bad matchup play at times and there are just too many things that can go wrong to merit the high 3rd round selection.
Undervalued — Carlos Hyde
Hyde plays for a lousy team, has a really tough schedule, doesn’t catch many passes, and missed half of last season. I get it.
But look at it another way. Hyde had one healthy game last year — and had 182 yards and 2 TDs against an outstanding Minnesota defense. New coach Chip Kelly gave LeSean McCoy the most carries and second most yards in the NFL in two seasons with him. And Hyde has the look of one of those nasty, Marshawn Lynch type RBs if he can stay healthy and get the touches.
The risk is there, but the upside is too. Hyde feels like similar upside and risk to guys like Ezekiel Elliott and Jamaal Charles — but in the 4th round instead of the 1st. If you feel good about your early picks, he’s worth a shot.
Overvalued — Jonathan Stewart
Stewart has never been a real beacon of health. He’s missed 25 games over the past six seasons, much of that as part of RBBC. Last season was the perfect Carolina season. Stewart had a career high in carries — plus 50 more in the playoffs — and his most TDs in seven years… and was still just RB16. The upside just isn’t there. You’re going to get slightly above average production for awhile and then near certain injury after last year’s heavy load. Look elsewhere, and scoop up Cameron Artis-Payne late if you have room to stash.
Undervalued — Arian Foster
Again, the risks are here. Foster is coming off an Achilles injury that most, myself included, thought might end his career. He’s old, he’s put on a ton of mileage over the years, and he’s no longer in Houston’s friendly scheme.
But the upside is there too. Foster was a top 5 RB when he did play last year, and he has been for five of the last six seasons. He scores a lot of TDs, he catches a lot of passes, and he now pays for a Miami team that has featured a top ten fantasy RB the last two years in a row.
Are you going to get 16 games out of Foster? Almost certainly not, and I’m not convinced Ajayi is a real handcuff replacement either. But can I interest in you in likely RB1 production for say 10–13 games, especially when it’s available at the end of the 5th round or sometimes significantly later?
Foster is on many do-not-draft lists, and I get it. He could get injured again and be retired in two weeks. But if he starts to slide in your draft, he’s worth the investment instead of that 4th WR or reaching for Carson Palmer or Delanie Walker when there are so many similar players available later. There are no other Arian Fosters available later. Don’t make him your 3rd round feature RB, but grab him when he slides.
Overvalued — Jeremy Langford
Here’s the thing with Langford… he’s not actually good.
Langford had a terrible 3.6 yards per carry last season, only surpassing 4 YPC in a game three times all year. He only caught 22 passes, and a third of those came in one game. There’s just not much to like.
There’s opportunity here but Langford doesn’t look like the guy to take advantage of it. Keep an eye out for another Bears RB if one starts to do well.
Undervalued — TJ Yeldon
Yeldon was my favorite sleeper RB heading into the offseason… and then the Jaguars signed Chris Ivory. Well that stinks. That’s a guy to steal carries and especially goal line touches, an area Yeldon struggled last year.
But there’s still lots to like. Yeldon should get plenty of touches for one of the highest scoring offenses in the league, and there’s a pretty good chance that many of Bortles’ passing TDs will regress back to run TDs this year. Yeldon had good YPC last year, and he was consistently involved in the passing game with 3–4 catches a game.
Yeldon should push 1000 combined yards and flex RB value even if Ivory steals a lot of carries and most of the TD opportunities. But if Yeldon grabs the job fully or starts to get into the endzone too, there is massive upside here — and at RB39 in the 8th round or later.
Yeldon is still my favorite sleeper RB, and now he’s even cheaper. If things break right, he could be this year’s breakout RB.
Overvalued — Matt Jones
This is basically Jeremy Langford II, but even worse. Jones had a paltry 3.4 YPC last year and never really got going, despite almost no competition once Alfred Morris got hurt. He doesn’t catch many passes, he didn’t score many TDs, and he plays for a team intent on featuring the passing game.
Jones started over half the season last year and had exactly two good games, with every other game in single digits. Oh and by the way, he’s injured. He’s going around RB22 in the 5th round. He’s not worth your attention unless his injury causes him to slide significantly further.
Undervalued — James White and LeGarrette Blount
Forget Dion Lewis. He’s out at least two months, probably longer. Blount and White are buried on your opponents’ rankings and that means both are usually available in the 9th, 10th, or later and both are great picks.
Blount is a matchup play. If New England is a big favorite, count on them to take the lead and then run Blount into the ground and tally you some points. He has a great YPC and gets lots of redzone chances, and matchup plays are perfectly fine that late in the draft. Plus Blount could see extra carries the first few weeks with Brady suspended.
White is even cheaper. Do you realize the Patriots starting receiving RB had 72 catches last year for 800 yards and 6 TDs? Add another 300 yards and 4 TDs on the ground and you’ve got a borderline RB1 in standard value, even better in PPR. White is basically free as late as he’s going and he’s likely to be excellent value as the obvious Pats receiving RB. Go get him.
Overvalued — taking safe “starting” veteran RBs in the 5th-7th rounds
A “starting” RB isn’t what it used to be. More teams use RBBC than not now, so don’t blindly scoop up “starting” RBs just because they look likely to be the first RB on the field getting carries. We’re talking about guys like Gore, Jennings, Ivory, Abdullah, Forsett, and Crowell here. I’d actually welcome almost any of those guys on my team — in the 8th or 9th round, whoever has fallen. Someone will be there for you, and if they’re not, you can grab a “3rd down” back just as valuable. Spend your 5th-7th round picks on a star QB, good WRs, or riskier RBs with high upside.
News flash: just because a RB finishes #20 doesn’t make him the 20th most valuable RB. So your #20 guy played all 16 games and got 8 points a game. My guy finished #35 and scored 12 a game but missed four games, and I played a different 6–8ppg dude in his spot. And I just crushed your team. Safe is good early. Upside is better later.
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Undervalued — Danny Woodhead, Duke Johnson, Bilal Powell, Darren Sproles, and other “3rd down backs” available late
And this is the corollary. Just because a RB doesn’t get the first touch doesn’t mean he can’t be valuable on the field or in fantasy. Woodhead was a top 12 RB last year in standard leagues, even better in PPR. Duke could equal him in receptions this year. Powell could end up more of a lead back than Forte. Sproles is always a useful flex and could get the Jamaal Charles role in Doug Pederson’s new offense. These guys are all perfectly fine RB3s for your team and they’re mostly available well into the 8th-10th rounds.
Don’t buy the anti-hype on RBs this year. There’s plenty of upside in the 4th and 5th rounds, and there will be plenty of value late as well. Don’t force a pick, stock your RB cupboard with quantity over quality, and you’ll be fine.