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Don't Draft Like It's 2009: RBs Unlikely to Repeat Success

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke

Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of RotoWire.com. He's been elected to the hall of fame for both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and Fantasy Sports Writers Association and also won the Best Fantasy Baseball Article on the Internet in 2005 from the FSWA. He roots for for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and T-Wolves.

Last year I wrote an extensive story about how taking wide receivers with a first-round draft pick is often the savvy move in your fantasy draft.

Let me recap the reasons why:

1. WRs have a higher floor.

WRs have less injury risk. Of the 21 wide receivers taken with an average draft position (ADP) in the top 15 since 1998, none have been a bust. By "bust" we mean a wide receiver who didn't score more fantasy points than the worst potential starter in a 12-team league that starts two wideouts. In 2010, that trend continued as Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson and Randy Moss all finished in the top 24 receivers at the end of the season after being taken on average in the top 15 spots overall in fantasy drafts (at least those on MyFantasyLeague).
Even Calvin Johnson, who had an ADP of 18.03, wasn't close to breaking this trend. Johnson finished with the 20th most fantasy points for a wideout, even though his 984 yards receiving and five touchdowns feels like a bust to those who took him in the first or second round.

2. While RBs have a higher ceiling, the gap between RBs and WRs is narrowing.

While RBs have a higher upside (earning 26 percent more fantasy points than WRs taken in the top 15 overall picks), that gap was narrowing from 1998 to 2008. A wide receiver with an ADP in the top 25 has returned 63 percent of the fantasy points of a similarly drafted running back from 1998 to 2008. From 2005 to 2008, that climbed to 70 percent. Part of this is due to the increasing division of carries between multiple running backs to reduce wear on starters. Since 1998, there has been an average of 9.7 running backs per season with more than 300 carries. There were six in 2007, five in 2008 and six in 2009.

My strategy the past few seasons if at the back end of a normal snake draft has been to select two wide receivers in my first three picks, and often going back-to-back receivers in the first two rounds (for example, taking a receiver in the 11th spot in the first round of a 12-team league and then 14th in the second round).
After taking two receivers early, I'd then take quantity over quality at running back. I'd largely be the last to take a quarterback. I'd often take a top tight end, but it wasn't essential to pick a top tight end for this strategy to work.

However, in 2009 this strategy didn't work as well as the previous few seasons. It just seemed like most of the running backs I took after the first three rounds didn't pan out. Donald Brown, Chris "Beanie" Wells, Knowshon Moreno and LeSean McCoy were among them. In 2008, these picks were home runs. Did I just make bad picks? Or was it that I just failed to take Ray Rice and Cedric Benson as my middle-round running backs in most leagues?

After going back to the data for the 2009 first-round wide receiver study, it looks like last year was an aberration for running backs. The top tier running backs just didn't get hurt at the same rate that caused the understudies to quickly value to the top of the fantasy ranks. Let's look at the last five years of the first two rounds of fantasy drafts and see the injuries that impacted the top running backs

Year Top 15 APD injuries Notable top 30 ADP injuries
2005 Priest Holmes (knee), Deuce McAllister (ACL) Domanick Davis/Williams (knee)
2006 Clinton Portis (shoulder), Cadillac Williams (back), Jordan (ACL) Shaun Alexander (foot), Willis McGahee (various)
2007 Johnson (foot), Alexander (wrist, ankle, knee), Rudi Johnson (hamstring) Travis Henry (knee), Cedric Benson (ankle)
2008 Joseph Addai (various) Larry Johnson (suspension), Willis McGahee (various), Reggie Bush (knee)
2009 none Steve Slaton (shoulder), Brian Westbrook (concussion), Brandon Jacobs (knee), Ronnie Brown (ankle)

Last year was a remarkably healthy year for the top running backs. The only running back taken in the top 15 ADP with a significant injury was Michael Turner (4.74 ADP). He missed five games with a high-ankle sprain and the injury impacted his play when he returned late in the season. But he still finished in the top 24 overall running backs in fantasy scoring (he finished tied for 23rd). Steve Slaton also missed games with a shoulder injury (15.92 ADP) also finished outside the top 24 running backs.

Meanwhile the top of the first round was phenomenally successful in 2009. In 2008, there also were few injuries among top 15 ADP backs. Only Joseph Addai didn't finish in the top 24 at the end of the season due to injury. However, there were plenty of underperformers among the top running backs. In 2008, the running backs in the top 15 ADP returned 92 fantasy points on average more the 25th best starter (this is commonly referred to as Value Based Drafting or VBD). From 1998 to 2008, the top 15 ADP running backs returned 101 VBD on average. But in 2009, running backs taken in the first round returned an average of 212 VBD. Even if you argued that the increase in committee systems at running back kept the top running backs more healthy, it wouldn't explain the difference in production in 2009 vs. 2008. As a result, it's not likely that the group of running backs currently being taken in the top 15 ADP can repeat that success.

With the top running backs performing so well in 2009, the second and third tier running backs underperformed. Running backs taken in the top 75 ADP in 2009 only produced 11 VBD on average compared to 62 VBD from 1998 to 2009. And beyond the top 75, there were a number of upside running backs that didn't cash in when the top tier backs were not hurt or disappointed.

So for 2010, I'm going to stick to the same strategy again. In my first draft I had the 11th pick and took Randy Moss and then Reggie Wayne. I then LeSean McCoy (35), Antonio Gates (38), Joseph Addai (62), Ahmad Bradshaw (65), Donald Brown (83) and Darren McFadden (86) with my next six picks. I was very happy with my running backs in the league, especially grabbing both Indianapolis running backs. I thought I executed this strategy to perfection in the league. We'll see if it pans out. View the full results of my draft here.

Here are the running backs I'm looking at for this strategy with ADPs outside the top 50 (courtesy of MockDraftCentral).

Ben Tate RB HOU 59.92 / Steve Slaton RB HOU 95.08 / Arian Foster RB HOU 269.67
I'll take the last one in a draft with a high-powered offense that runs in the red zone. Any could be valuable if they get the bulk of the job.

Marion Barber RB DAL 62.85
I'd bet against Felix Jones staying healthy, so I'll grab Barber if he falls into the 5th round.

Jerome Harrison RB CLE 63.38
Look at his rushing totals from the last three games last season: 286, 148 and 127 yards. Second-round draft pick Montario Hardesty is already missing time with a knee injury. Sure the Browns offense isn't anything to get excited about, but maybe they figure out how to give him the ball.

Ricky Williams RB MIA 68.32
It's a run-first team with Ronnie Brown coming back from a Lisfranc fracture and a checkered injury history.

Darren McFadden RB OAK 79.21
Michael Bush is probably the Raider running back to own, but he was the No. 4 pick overall and his lack of success seems more to do with Oakland's woes on offense than anything else.

Ahmad Bradshaw RB NYG 83.77
He's got a chance to be a starter on a run-first team. Great value at this point.

Michael Bush RB OAK 85.36
He's going lower than McFadden, but likely gets more carries. The Raiders offense should be better and he'll at least get goal-line carries.
He averaged 6.0 YPC over the final seven games last season

Donald Brown RB IND 94.80
Brown has big play ability and is behind an injury-prone starter in the most consistently productive offense in the league.

Darren Sproles RB SD 114.91
What if Ryan Matthews struggles as a rookie or gets hurt? Sproles has a role and it could grow.

Tim Hightower RB ARI 117.18
He's one to grab in PPR leagues (his ADP only rises to 104.81 in PPR formats) as he could easily catch 50 passes again if Matt Leinart struggles and just looks to his dumpoff options.

Chester Taylor RB CHI 117.93
He could get a significant number of touches in a Mike Martz led offense, has the receiving skills to thrive and starter Matt Forte is coming off a poor season.

Long-shot options I like late in drafts (that you can throw away early in the season if they don't pan out):

Tashard Choice RB DAL 208.07
Sure, he's third string but both Barber and Jones have had injury issues and Choice thrived last year when given carries (5.5 YPC).

Bernard Scott RB CIN 285.30
He showed he can be productive when Benson was out last year (21 carries for 119 yards)

Jonathan Dwyer RB PIT 295.70
Productive college player in a run-first system. He's third string, but there's already talk he could be the short-yardage back.

Lynell Hamilton RB NO 298.23
No one thought Mike Bell would be a factor for the Saints last year, so just pick any back (or receiver) in the New Orleans offense. There's talk he could be the goal-line back.