Fantasy News  

 

Are rookie fantasy football running backs overvalued?

Print

The 2017 NFL Draft will go down as one of the deepest in recent memory at the running back position. A total of 30 were selected, and more than a third have been predicted to make an immediate impact (on some level) in the world of fantasy football. Right now, 12 rookie runners are being selected in the first 15 rounds in standard 10-team drafts on NFL.com. That list includes the likes of Leonard Fournette (22.5 ADP), Christian McCaffrey (32.5), Joe Mixon (42.34) and Dalvin Cook (49.75). That quartet is coming off the board ahead of Mark Ingram (58.37), LeGarrette Blount (67.04) and Frank Gore (70.65), all of whom finished as top-15 fantasy backs last year.

Fantasy analysts and fans alike are also gushing over other rookie runners like Kareem Hunt, Samaje Perine, Jamaal Williams and Joe Williams. A handful of analysts are predicting those youngsters will take over the top spot on their respective team's depth charts at some point this season. In addition, Alvin Kamara, D'Onta Foreman and Marlon Mack are projected to impact incumbent starters. Even James Conner has had his share of fantasy mentions in Pittsburgh behind Le'Veon Bell.

All of this hype is great and potentially warranted, but it raises the question as to whether or not we're over-vauling this large group of players who have yet to set foot on an NFL gridiron.

Unfortunately, the past shows us that even some of the most thoughtful and researched prognostications are going to be proven incorrect. That's often the case with rookies, too. Just look to a season ago, when countless analysts predicted the demise of DeMarco Murray after the Tennessee Titans drafted Heisman winner Derrick Henry. Murray went on to have one of the best seasons of his career, while Henry was mired in a limited role. Past seasons have also proven that far less than half of rookie running backs selected in fantasy drafts will make an immediate impact.

Over the last 10 seasons, 26 rookie runners have ranked in the top 25 in fantasy points in standard scoring leagues. That's an average of fewer than three players a year. The good news is that three years (2008, 2012, 2013) did feature four or more players who hit our mark. That showed us that while it's rare, it is possible for several rookie backs to make an immediate fantasy impact in the same year.

The question now is ... exactly how big of an impact are we talking about here? Let's dig some more into those years.

In 2008, Matt Forte (third) and Steve Slaton (seventh) both finished in the top 10 at the position while Chris Johnson was close at No. 11. Kevin Smith (18th) was a low-end No. 2 fantasy back, while Jonathan Stewart (24th) fell into the flex-starter range on the strength of his 10 rushing touchdowns. Let's also keep in mind that several of the high-profile runners in that class (Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles) failed to meet our parameters.

The 2012 class didn't have a ton of talented options at the position, but it did see four runners rank in the top 25 in fantasy points including Doug Martin (second), Alfred Morris (fifth), Trent Richardson (ninth) and Vick Ballard (25th). Fantasy owners who drafted David Wilson, Isaiah Pead or Lamar Miller, on the other hand, weren't rewarded nearly as well. That trio opened behind incumbent starters and failed to move up their depth charts as rooks.

A total of five rookie runners graced the top 25 in fantasy points at the position in 2013, but Eddie Lacy (sixth) was the lone back to finish inside the top 12. Bell (14th) was close and would have been a top-10 lock had he not missed three games. The remaining three backs, Giovani Bernard (16th), Zac Stacy (18th) and Andre Ellington (24th), were all mid-level No. 2s or flex starters based on their rank.

All right, now it's time to review.

Since 2007, we've established that 26 rookie runners ranked in the top 25 in points. Almost half (12) finished in the top 10. Another seven (or 27 percent) ranked in the No. 11-20 range, while the final seven finished No. 21-25 (flex starter range). Now let's get to an even deeper (and scarier) stat. Out of the 108 running backs who have been picked in one of the first four rounds of the NFL draft in the last 10 years, 21 have finished in the top 10 in fantasy points at the position as rookies.

That's 19.4 percent.

What's more, a combined five rookie runners selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft finished No. 11-20. Another five ranked at No. 21-25. So if we add it all up, we've had 31 first-year runners (28.7 percent) picked in the first four rounds finish in the top 25 based on fantasy points at the position. What's insane about these stats is that running back has historically been one of the two best positions when it comes to rookies making a quick fantasy impact.

So based on this data, are we overvaluing rookie running backs this season? The answer is probably yes. Fantasy analysts and fans alike get all fired up over young, upside runners who were high picks in the NFL draft ... even if those runners have legitimate road blocks ahead of them. And if you look at the list of backs who are coming off the board in NFL.com drafts, you'll see that most of them will have major competition for touches in the summer months. Nothing will be handed to these backs.

While I love Mixon's potential at the next level, you still have Jeremy Hill and Bernard in Cincinnati. Any chance that Hill keeps a short-yardage and goal-line role will give Mixon's ceiling a kick in the pills. There's already reports that Stewart is going to see plenty of carries in Carolina, despite the addition of McCaffrey. We all like Cook in Minnesota, but Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon aren't chopped liver. We might dig Perine in Washington, but Rob Kelley isn't going down without a fight. Neither is Ty Montgomery in Green Bay. Or Spencer Ware in Kansas City. Or Carlos Hyde in San Francisco.

Get my drift?

Fantasy fans should also keep in mind that we are in the Age of the Backfield Committee, so Mixon, Cook and McCaffrey (among others) are more than likely to be sharing the workload to at least some degree. In fact, I'd expect it. If I'm honest with myself, no matter how much I might like other rookie backs (and I like a number of them), the one who screams of a potential top-10 finish is Fournette ... and even he has Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon as competition in camp.

Now, I'm not telling you to avoid rookie runners altogether. That would be stupid on the level of not running Marshawn Lynch at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX. Or the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. (Thanks, Beantown). What I would avoid is over-reaching for rooks. If you really like Mixon (as I do), then you'll probably have to pick him in Round 3 or 4. But not Round 2. The same goes for McCaffrey. Someone like Cook will cost you a fourth or fifth rounder. But not a third. And remember, missing on a player in the top 50 can hurt. A lot. Also keep in mind that often times the real value in rookie runners is found in the middle to late rounds rather than in the top 40.

Just ask anyone who took a flier on Jordan Howard or Kelley a season ago.


Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com and NFL Network and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!

Print

Fan Discussion