Drafting for Success- Running Backs

During the off-season I’m going to take a look at each position and dig a little deeper and see if we can spot some trends to help us predict or improve our selection strategy come Draft 2015. This week I’ll start with the workhorses for our teams; the running backs.

Usually the key to a successful season is a stud RB who can produce a steady 10-25 points each week. In past years these players were easy and reliable selections at the top of the draft. The evolution of the NFL away from bell-cow offenses to multi-purpose running games has meant that selecting a running back you can rely on isn’t as easy as it once was.

Despite the risk, running backs still dominate fantasy drafts and there are obvious reasons why this is the case. The risk/reward ratio for landing a 2013 Adrian Peterson, a 2014 DeMarco Murray or 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson are just too tempting for GMs and coaches to ignore.

This article won’t go any deeper into drafting strategies and there are a number of great articles out there that discuss the merits of drafting differently. What we’ll concentrate on here is the RBs we drafted , where we drafted them and discuss if there was anything we could have done to improve our chances of selecting hits rather than misses.

The Earlston Fantasy Football League draft took place during week three of the 2014 pre-season. In total 180 players where drafted of which 56 were RBs. Eight of the 12 first round selections and 21 of the first 36 players picked were RBs. How did these guys do?

We pretty much stuck to the expert advice and drafted accordingly, but was this a wise move? Could we have predicted the top ten scoring RBs this year?

The table below shows the the preseason rankings of the top ten running backs from footballguys.com in the three columns (pre-season rank , name , team, their final rank and where they were drafted.

Preason Rank Name Team Final Rank EFFL Draft
1 Jamaal Charles KC 6 1.03
2 LeSean McCoy PHI 10 1.01
3 Adrian Peterson MIN NR 1.02
4 Matt Forte CHI 4 1.04
5 Eddie Lacy GB 8 1.05
6 Marshawn Lynch SEA 3 1.11
7 DeMarco Murray DAL 1 2.02
8 Montee Ball DEN NR 1.06
9 Arian Foster HOU 5 1.09
10 Giovani Bernard CIN 18 2.06

From the raw stats we can see that 7 of the preseason top 10 were ranked within the top 10 end of season rankings. This means that a GM had an excellent chance of their selection being a strong pick. In fact only one of the top 10, Adrian Peterson,  was kept out by exceptional circumstances. Peterson’s replacements Matt Asiata and Jerrick McKinnon had a couple of memorable games but produced underwhelming numbers that placed them outwith the top 10 on combined production.

The other 2 preseason top ten predictions who failed to appear in the top ten scorers were no.8 Montee Ball and no. 10 Giovanni Bernard.  Although both were injured during the season their teams combined RB1 scores (Ronnie Hillman/CJ Anderson for Ball and Jeremy Hill for Bernard) produced 200 and 220 points respectively (Both top 3 outputs). Their failures as draft selections can really be attributed to poor roster management by their GMs rather than poor draft selections.

So this year like so many past fantasy seasons it was a very good idea to draft one of the top 10 ranked RBs. You were guaranteed points, perhaps not as many as you expected, but somewhere in the top 10 rankings and certainly RB1 numbers. Of course it’s easy, with hindsight, to spot those top 10 backs who were over-rated and again those who were under-rated. The question for you as a GM next year are you brave enough to go with your convictions.

Now that makes sense for preseason rankings, but how did we do as a league? The next table lists the top 24 RBs selected in our draft, their preseason ranking and their final rank in actual scoring. These top 24 players are probably the best description of “legitimate fantasy starter” i.e. our RB1 and RB2’s.

Pick Player Preseason Rank  Final Rank
1.01 LeSean McCoy 2 10
1.02 Adrian Peterson 3 NR
1.03 Jamaal Charles 1 6
1.04 Matt Forte 4 4
1.05 Eddie Lacy 5 8
1.06 Montee Ball 8 NR
1.09 Arian Foster 9 5
1.11 Marshawn Lynch 6 3
2.02 DeMarco Murray 7 1
2.06 Giovani Bernard 10 18
2.1 Doug Martin 11 NR
3.01 Ryan Mathews 16 NR
3.02 LeVeon Bell 12 2
3.04 Alfred Morris 13 9
3.05 Zac Stacy 15 NR
3.06 Toby Gerhart 19 NR
3.07 Reggie Bush 17 NR
3.08 Frank Gore 20 22
3.09 Rashad Jennings 22 19
3.11 Bishop Sankey 26 40
3.12 Andre Ellington 14 11
4.01 C.J. Spiller 18 NR
4.03 Chris Johnson 24 39
4.07 Joique Bell 23 16

If our predictions were good we’d expect the majority of our top 24 picks to appear in the top 24 RB scorers for the season. Of course injuries play a part and so will team and player form.

The season ended with fourteen of our top 24 RBs selected in the Top 24 scorers, this isn’t an endorsement of those finishes especially if you’re the Coach who selected LeSean McCoy, but at least there was a good chance a player you drafted fell within an acceptable starter range.

However……We’ve already had a look at the top ten picks and 7 of those made the top ten with 1 other making the top 20. So that means in total only 6 of the next 14 players selected ranked in the top 24. For LeVeon Bell, Joique Bell and Andre Ellington owners that meant a hit and for Alfred Morris, Rashard Jennings and Frank Gore owners a steady starter.

That leaves us 10 players who didn’t make the top 24;

  • The first, Adrian Peterson, occupies a dumb-ass category by himself, one that couldn’t really be legislated for unless you were his local minister and in that case you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about.
  • The next category are those players who suffered season ending injuries. There were 5 in total and they could be separated into two categories
    • Ball, Martin and Mathews all suffered injuries that ended their seasons or prevented them from playing the majority of games. All but Martin had adequate replacement(s) that would have allowed a savvy coach to endure their loss.
    • Bush and Spiller also suffered season ending injuries, but because of their status as the other half of a multi-headed backfield their absence only served to increase the workload (and output) of the other half (Joique Bell and Fred Jackson respectively). Perhaps their draft status should be mitigated by this risk?
  • Next comes the true busts- Stacy and Gerhart, but here again both Stacy and Gerhart were replaced by better players during the season (although both offenses stunk and were expected to stink!!).
  • And finally the over-drafted (easy to say in hindsight!). Chris Johnson and Bishop Sankey played the entire year, but continually disappointed as RB2 starters. Both would’ve made adequate RB3/4 contributors. Johnson was the loser in a competition with Chris Ivory, but Sankey and the Titans rushing offense was just rancid.

But what about the players who made the top 24 scorers that we didn’t draft in the top 24, how many of those did we miss? The table below shows the top 24 scoring RBs in the EFFL and where we drafted them.

RANK NAME TEAM POINTS draft
1 DeMarco Murray DAL 215 2.02
2 LeVeon Bell PIT 198.9 3.02
3 Marshawn Lynch SEA 197.3 1.11
4 Matt Forte CHI 193.8 1.04
5 Arian Foster HOU 177.6 1.09
6 Jamaal Charles KC 172.7 1.03
7 Justin Forsett BAL 165.6 undrafted
8 Eddie Lacy GB 164.2 1.08
9 Alfred Morris WAS 143.8 3.04
10 LeSean McCoy PHI 132.9 1.01
11 Andre Ellington ARI 131.5 3.12
12 Lamar Miller MIA 126 5.11
13 Mark Ingram NO 123.8 10.4
14 Jeremy Hill CIN 120.3 10.10
15 Ahmad Bradshaw IND 116.5 14.6
16 Joique Bell DET 107.9 4.07
17 Chris Ivory NYJ 105 12.6
18 Giovani Bernard CIN 104.5 2.06
19 Rashad Jennings NYG 100.6 3.09
20 Steven Jackson ATL 99.9 6.11
21 Shane Vereen NE 96.5 6.05
22 Frank Gore SF 95.5 3.08
23 C.J. Anderson DEN 95.4 undrafted
24 Matt Asiata MIN 94.7 undrafted

From this list it doesn’t seem all that bad with the league just missing 3 players. Given that C.J. Anderson was 3rd/4th on the Broncos depth chart and Asiata was a fullback blocking for Adrian Peterson we could perhaps be forgiven for not drafting either. As for Justin Forsett he was one of the finds of the season and emerged from a cluttered competition to win the Ravens starting job after the Ray Rice lift debacle. As a journeyman RB who had bounced around the league it was no surprise he wasn’t expected to win the job.

For the RBs who were drafted lower than we’d expect a top 24 back to be such as Lamar Miller, Mark Ingram, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jeremy Hill and Chris Ivory there was a mix of lucky circumstances, offensive changes, injuries and contract years at work.

Their low draft status wasn’t an accident either.

Miller and Ingram have been disappointing players since joining the league and both were expected to share carries during the season. This limited them to RB3-5 status at best. Ingram benefited from being the only man standing in the Saints backfield and Miller also took advantage of starter Knowshown Moreno’s season ending elbow injury to have a break out season.

Bradshaw has been a great player over his career, but has been injury prone and benefited from a large dose of passing game number from Andrew Luck rather than running work. Hill actually lost his share of the Cincinnati workload by mid season and it was only an injury to Bernard that saw him promoted back to the starting lineup.

Ivory is probably the most under appreciated here, but fear of a multi-headed backfield and the chance he’d lose the No1 role in New York in a turgid offense led to his slip down the draft board.

So what can we conclude from our drafting? It looks like in the main the preseason predictions are fairly accurate for the top ten ten players but beyond the top ten this is where the accepted knowledge begins to fade.

It’s common knowledge from advanced statistical sites such as Football Outsiders that NFL offenses are more consistent and easier to predict on a year to year basis. This in part should make predicting the top 10 RBs easier to do. Select the top offenses, look which ones have the best QBs, look at their efficiency and line quality and bingo you have an excellent predictor for running game success. Add in a winning record and you have your magic formula.

So what does it mean to us when selecting RBs in the draft. For the first round we can see the lesson of ensuring you pick at least one top back and trying to ensure you get first a consistent performer and secondly a superstar season (or at least the potential of one). The indicators for success are there as well as your ability as GM to ensure you have proper insurance to protect your investment.

How the selection of a first round running back versus a top WR or TE plays out is something I’ll discuss later in the offseason, but be warned- Not selecting a Running Back in the first round severely reduces your chances of picking a winning ticket.

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