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According to the Data: Why You Should Gamble on Late-Round Rookie Running Backs

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales

Jonathan Bales is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. In addition to RotoWire, Jonathan also provides content to the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, DallasCowboys.com, and NBC.

Why You Should Gamble on Late-Round Rookie Running Backs

Since I wrote Fantasy Football for Smart People, I've received a lot of e-mails asking about rookie running backs. The most common topic is how to project the stats for Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and the rest of the rookie backs who have no history of NFL production.

My answer is I don't think there's a great way to project the stats for rookie running backs; by now, RotoWire readers know I'm all about objective stat analysis, but I think projecting rookies involves more subjectivity than is required for other players. There are just too many variables to create any sort of totally objective projection.

However, gambling on rookie running backs is often a wise move. Whereas rookie wide receivers rarely post outstanding fantasy numbers, runners have the ability to step right in and become relevant in the world of fantasy football.

The Numbers on Rookie Running Backs

It isn't as if all rookie running backs provide value. Actually, the majority of rookie runners finish lower than their preseason average draft positions. I tracked all running backs taken in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft since 2006, and only 36.6 percent finished their rookie seasons ahead of their average draft positions. That is, almost two-thirds of all rookie running backs perform below expectations.

Further, the average fantasy draft position of rookie running backs selected in Rounds 1, 2 and 3 of the NFL Draft has been 41.7 among all players at the position. Their average final rank among running backs has been just 50.2.

Why Gamble on Rookie Running Backs?

With the exception of a few Trent Richardson-types, rookie running backs rarely get selected in the first few rounds. Since 2006, the average draft position of the top rookie running back off of the board has been just 19th. Only Ryan Mathews in 2010 cracked the top 10. Darren McFadden (18th) and Reggie Bush (14th) were the only other running backs to get selected in the top 20 of all running backs in their rookie seasons.

In the middle and especially late rounds of drafts, your goal should be acquiring upside. It can be a deathblow to your fantasy team if your first pick fizzles out, but it isn't too much of an issue if your 14th round pick is a bust. Thus, there's no reason to play it safe you should seek players with very high ceilings late.

Perhaps no late-round picks have provided the upside of rookie running backs over the past half-decade. Despite only three rookie runners getting selected in the top-20 running backs over that time, nine (Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Kevin Smith, Steve Slaton, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush, Joseph Addai, and Maurice Jones-Drew) have finished in the top 20 by season's end. Seven of those nine have actually finished in the top 12 running backs, making them legitimate No. 1 players at the position.

How about the value of some of these picks:

Chris Johnson: ADP 36, Final Rank 11
Matt Forte: ADP 28, Final Rank 4
Kevin Smith: ADP 30, Final Rank 18
Steve Slaton: ADP 47, Final Rank 6
Adrian Peterson: ADP 25, Final Rank 3
Marshawn Lynch: ADP 24, Final Rank 12
Joseph Addai: ADP 27, Final Rank 11
Maurice Jones-Drew: ADP 62, Final Rank 8

It's almost impossible to think some of those running backs were selected as low as they were. Adrian Peterson was the 25th running back off of the board in his rookie season? Maurice Jones-Drew was 62nd? Wow.

For the record, I tracked the production of all running backs during the same time period. It turns out rookie running backs selected lower than 30th at the position are about four times as likely to finish in the top 20 as other running backs drafted in the same range.

Ultimately, rookie running backs are high-risk/high-reward options. In the middle and late rounds where they tend to get drafted, however, that sort of volatility is exactly what you want.

2012 Rookies

In 2012, Trent Richardson is getting selected higher than any rookie running back over the past decade (ninth among all backs). He's such an interesting case because he figures to rack up a ton of carries, but the risk might be too great for the late-first round or early-second round pick you'll need to spend on him.

After that, however, rookies Doug Martin (18th), David Wilson (34th), Ronnie Hillman (40th), Isaiah Pead (48th), Lamar Miller (54th), LaMichael James (57th), and Robert Turbin (60th) are all guys who offer amazing upside. Based on past rookie production, chances are you'll see at least a couple of those names end up in the top 20 in fantasy points among all running backs by the end of 2012.

You can follow me on Twitter @TheCowboysTimes.