Running back is dead! Don't draft running backs early!
This is a common sentiment after a brutal 2015 that saw only two of the consensus top-10 running backs finish the season as a top-10 fantasy back.
Adrian Peterson entered the season as the first player off the board in most drafts and went on to finish second at the position in fantasy points. Similarly, Matt Forte was the ninth running back off the board and finished eighth.
Other than that, the results were, uh, not good.
Le'Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch were consensus top-five picks, but combined to miss 30 of a possible 48 games. Eddie Lacy missed a game and struggled badly with ineffectiveness. C.J. Anderson and Jeremy Hill were popular breakout candidates. Anderson started slow and ended up in a time-share with Ronnie Hillman. Hill struggled badly with efficiency, but bailed out his owners with 12 touchdowns. LeSean McCoy missed four games in his first season in Buffalo. DeMarco Murray's only season in Philadelphia was a disaster and yet he was still the fifth-best finisher in this group.
According to ESPN average draft position (ADP), eight running backs were drafted in the first round last year. So, although your first pick likely busted, you weren't alone.
NOTE: All references in this column are related to 10-team, standard leagues.
Early-round hit rates
Earlier, I mentioned that, of the first 10 backs selected in fantasy drafts last season, only two finished the season as a top-10 fantasy back. For perspective, that's half of the league low during the previous eight years. In fact, seven of the first 10 backs selected in 2014 went on to finish in the top 10.
And 2015 wasn't just a slight down year at the position; the backs selected early on busted in epic proportion. Only five of the first 10 drafted backs ended up in the top 20 and six in the top 30. Both of those marks tie for fewest during the past nine years. The top six selected backs averaged a 34.3 finish at the position, which is nearly double the 17.2 average during the previous eight years.
If we expand and look at the first 20 drafted backs, we see that only four finished in the top 10. That's a nine-year low and the 2007-14 average was 6.9.
This tells us that 2015 was obviously an outlier at the running back position. Most years, roughly half of the first 10 drafted backs will end up as a top-10 option at the position, and a majority will end up inside the top 20.
Anatomy of a successful fantasy back
OK, so now we know how often running backs bust. But what about those who succeed? It turns out that the ludicrousness that was 2015 went both ways.
Devonta Freeman was, on average, the 38th back off the board in ESPN drafts last year. That's the latest a top-scoring back has been picked during the past nine seasons. The next closest was DeAngelo Williams (34th) in 2008. During the other seven seasons, the average positional ADP of the top-scoring fantasy back was 5.7. In fact, during six of the past nine years, the top-scoring fantasy back sat among the top-15 players in overall ADP.
From 2007-14, the average overall ADP of a top-four fantasy back was 22.4. Last season, it was 75.0, when it was Freeman (100th), Peterson (first), Doug Martin (79th) and Williams (121st). During the preceding eight years, there were only two occasions on which a top-four back was selected after the 79th overall pick (Williams in 2008, Peyton Hillis in 2010). Including 2015, the median overall ADP of a top-four fantasy back is 14.0.
During the past nine years, the top-drafted running back has finished a season worse than seventh just once. The exception? Peterson during a bizarre 2014 campaign that ended after one game due to a non-football-related issue. During the other eight years, the average finish was 3.67. Running backs have a reputation as unreliable, but good luck finding a higher floor than this in the world of fantasy football.
Further evidence of this is the fact that fantasy's top-scoring back was a top-nine pick at the position during six of the past nine years (exceptions: Freeman in 2015, Arian Foster in 2010, Williams in 2008). Fantasy's No. 2-scoring back was top-10 in positional ADP during eight of the past nine years (exception: Michael Turner in 2008). The No. 3 back was a top-six pick among RBs five times and chosen within the first 15 backs on an additional two occasions in that same nine-year span.
I'm throwing around a lot of numbers, but the message here is that, regardless of what went down last season, elite fantasy backs are usually selected in the first round or two of drafts.
Go wide receiver instead?
It's easy to theorize that 2015 could simply be a sign of a changing of the guard, and while that well could be the case, we don't have enough evidence to draw that conclusion.
Despite the fact that many have soured on running backs over the past few seasons, there hasn't been much of a change in the number of backs selected in the first round. The average is 7.2 during the past nine years and eight went in the first round last year. The high was nine in 2007, while the low was five in 2012.
After the debacle that was 2015, more wide receivers are sure to be selected in the first round this season, but the next question we need to answer is whether or not this is an overreaction or a market correction. As you're about to see, wide receiver trends from the past nine years suggest that it's the latter, but not by as much as you might think. In fact, the data shows that success/bust rates for backs and receivers are nearly identical.
Starting with the first round, there have been only nine instances of wide receiver being top 10 in our overall ADP during the past nine years. Of that group, Antonio Brown (2015) and Calvin Johnson (2012) were the only two to finish the season as the No. 1 overall fantasy wide receiver, but the bust rate here is extremely low. The average finish of the nine first-round wide receivers is 13.0 and, if we remove Andre Johnson's 68th-place finish in 2010, the average is a more-than-palatable 6.1. In all, seven of the nine receivers posted a top-10 season at the position.
What does this mean? If a wide receiver had a first-round ESPN ADP during the past decade, it was a near certainty that he panned out. Of course, the sample here is small, which means we need to dig deeper.
It wasn't nearly as significant, but 2015 was a bit of a down year at the wide receiver position, as well.
Of the first 10 receivers drafted, only four posted a top-10 fantasy campaign: Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones and A.J. Green. The six who failed to live up to their ADPs were Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb, T.Y. Hilton, Alshon Jeffery and, although barely, Calvin Johnson.
If we look at the top-10 wide receivers in fantasy points in each of the past nine years, 51.1 percent were among the first 10 receivers drafted. If you recall from earlier, the running back mark is 45.6 percent. That's a fairly low gap and suggests that the success rate of early-round backs and receivers is about even. If we move the needle to how often the top-10 finishers were selected in the top 20, the mark is exactly 65.6 percent for both receivers and backs. For the top 30, it's 84.4 and 82.2 percent, respectively.
Thus far, the data does suggest a slight advantage to wide receiver, but consider that if you had a top-three fantasy back at season's end over the past nine years, there was a 70 percent chance that player was one of the first 10 backs selected. That number is 59 percent for wide receivers. This tells us that selecting a back over a receiver in the early rounds wasn't necessarily a detriment to your title hopes. In fact, if we expand this stat to look at the top-20 finishers at each position, 36 percent of receivers and 35 percent of backs were top-10 picks at the position. So essentially a wash.
What it all means
The message here is fairly clear: Although running backs won't be as bad moving forward as they were in 2015, more top-end wide receivers should be coming off the board in the first round or two of drafts. Running back has historically been viewed as a seller's market, but it can't be overlooked that, however slightly, wide receivers are the safer picks.
It's still early in the offseason, so we don't have credible ADP data just yet, but it's not hard to generate a projection of who will make up this year's crop of first-round picks. My guess is that it will be Brown, Beckham, Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Bell, Todd Gurley, Peterson, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson and Rob Gronkowski, although Freeman, Allen Robinson and Dez Bryant are among those in the discussion.
My list includes five running backs, four wide receivers and a tight end, which means groundbreaking change is likely headed to an ESPN draft near you. As the data showed us, it's a market correction years in the making.
The early-round RB versus WR debate is one of the hottest in fantasy football, but you shouldn't feel compelled to lock in on one or the other. When creating your draft board, rank the players as you feel most comfortable and take the best fantasy asset regardless of position. Is there a fair chance that player will be a bust? Absolutely. But, as we just learned, that will be case regardless of who you pick on draft day.