2018 fantasy RB season preview: Mining for draft bargains and fades

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/28537/" data-ylk="slk:Jay Ajayi">Jay Ajayi</a> and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/29307/" data-ylk="slk:Kenyan Drake">Kenyan Drake</a> appear to be buys in fantasy drafts, while <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/30161/" data-ylk="slk:Joe Mixon">Joe Mixon</a> is a fade.
Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake appear to be buys in fantasy drafts, while Joe Mixon is a fade.

While we started off our draft preview series with the quarterbacks, running backs remain the central debate in Fantasy Football. Drafting a top running back and having him stay healthy and perform as expected is the clearest path to fantasy victory. But running backs are most likely to get injured and they also carry the risk of regressing or failing to live up to expectations (in the case of rookies).

So this top-RB path to victory may be the easiest narrative at your draft, but it’s more likely you’ll win with backs taken after the first round and with the help of stronger receivers, especially in leagues that fully weight points per reception.

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I’m not going to try to forecast injury here. But according to Sports Injury Predictor, running backs are expected to miss about 50% more games than wide receivers. This is just a fact of life that we have to accept. But all of us who take a running back at the top of the draft cross our fingers and hope.

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We should strive to figure out which backs deserve more expansive roles in their team’s backfield than ADP forecasts. Last year, in writing about Le’Veon Bell, I looked at how the starting running backs the prior year did in yards per rush compared with their backups who got at least 50 carries. This approach would have made draft targets out of undrafted RB Chris Thompson (11th in PPR, 12th in standard) and RB42 Rex Burkhead (18th, 16th). And it would have faded RB12 Lamar Miller (18th, 21st) and RB22 Doug Martin (51st, 60th).

But it’s best to just look at running backs compared with their team average in yards per carry from the position. I call this relative yards per carry. (Note that while I find yards before and after contact more descriptive stats, they have not proven to be more predictive.)

The first-round fantasy running back this model says to avoid is Leonard Fournette (minus-0.28 yards per carry compared with other Jaguars backs). And in the second round, the back to avoid for the same reason is Joe Mixon (minus-0.2). Ezekiel Elliott owners need to explain why Alfred Morris, who is not even on a roster as of this writing, was 0.7 yards per carry better.

Since there are so many players to choose from where they’re being drafted, why not just pick someone else? I strongly suggest David Johnson over Elliott. At least consider these facts and have a reason why you think it should be discounted. Remember other backs on all the teams mentioned above had significant carries.

Is Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott worth a top five selection in 2018 fantasy drafts? (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)
Is Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott worth a top five selection in 2018 fantasy drafts? (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

More important are the backs this model says are values at ADP. Highlighting that list is Jay Ajayi, who is RB19 on Yahoo but who this model loves. While the Eagles running backs averaged 4.52 yard per carry, Ajayi averaged 5.8 after coming over, that plus-1.24 is the second greatest relative difference among all backs with at least 50 carries. And Ajayi had a typical starting RB workload in the postseason, too.

RB16 Kenyan Drake (plus-0.78) smashed all Dolphins running backs last year, including Ajayi before he was traded to Philly. He seems like a bargain even though there are new backs in Miami for him to battle for carries. Expect Drake to easily prevail. The question with him is ability to withstand workload. A valid concern with Drake is that 60% of his yards came on big runs (10-plus yards) compared with the league average of 42.4%. This screams regression in yards per carry. But Drake is a big-play back so he should be somewhat above average on the stat.

Similarly, RB31 Aaron Jones rode his ability to generate big runs (51%) to a yards per carry that was a league-best 1.42 yards better than all Green Bay backs. He’s suspended the first two games, however. RB44 Jamaal Williams was minus-0.48. While Williams looks more like a bell cow on paper and starts the season in the starting role, this model says Yahoo drafters are getting the Packers backfield right by taking Jones so much earlier.

Even later, RB51 Bilal Powell (plus-0.38) makes the list for the second straight year. I’d expect him to finish around RB30 again. Powell is being bypassed by some for Elijah McGuire, who he bested last year by 0.76 yards per carry.

Two backs just missed our cutoff with 49 carries but should be noted. While it’s extremely unlikely that Fournette will be benched, the former fourth-overall pick does frequently battle injury. T.J. Yeldon (plus-1.00 per carry versus all Jaguars backs) seems capable of sliding from a third-down to every-down role should Fournette miss time. Yeldon, a former second-round pick, is the pro-fragility pick this year and is generally not even drafted.

And while the Seahawks drafted RB22 Rashaad Penny in the first round, don’t forget about RB45 Chris Carson, who averaged 4.24 yards on a team where all the backs averaged a league worst 3.25 (with leading carrier Eddie Lacy, now a free agent, at just 2.59). That 0.99 difference in Carson’s favor was not powered by a bunch of big runs, as his rate of 45% was about average. Similarly, Yeldon’s was 46%. So both were efficient and consistent relative to average — in other words solid bets to again have a good yards per rush in their team context.

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