2019 Running Back Fantasy Draft Preview: Beyond Big 6, timeshares and specialization rule

Current Running Back Landscape

For years the running theory — investing in RBs early and often — was widely accepted and implemented in the virtual game. Then 2011 happened. That season marked a scheming tipping point, a systematic overhaul employed by several offensive coordinators which diminished the position’s value and importance. For the first time in the decades-long NFL existence, the league averaged above 222.0 pass yards per game — 229.7 to be exact. Much to the chagrin of ground-and-pound forefathers like Eric Dickerson, Larry Johnson, and Eddie George, the NFL upgraded its travel choice from an old school Oldsmobile to the spacious comforts of a fast-moving Learjet. Almost overnight, college football inclusions (e.g. more shotgun and spread formations) placed workhorses on the endangered species list.

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Since the scale tilt, air yards, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and yards per game have surged year-to-year. Coaches are more aggressive. Offenses are more efficient. As a result, few teams have relied on exclusive one-back systems, choosing instead to implement RBBCs (running back by committee), a phrase when uttered makes any fantasy player cringe a little. Unsurprisingly, the few Clydesdales who remain command a premium akin to a fine bottle of Don Julio 1942. Meanwhile, the leftovers, when consumed, often lead investors unsatisfied and terribly hungover.

This season will be no different.

After the big six — Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, and Le’Veon Bell — fall off the board, serious workload, or other questions arise. To be fair, many within the projected RB12-RB30 range present upside cases, though each possesses considerable downside.

Welcome to the timeshare age. Welcome to an era dominated by specialization.

Saquon Barkley is one of the few running backs with a guaranteed share of his team's carries heading into the season. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Saquon Barkley is one of the few running backs with a guaranteed share of his team's carries heading into the season. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Running Back Draft Strategy

Though the NFL has morphed into a QB-centric league, there are encouraging signs RBs aren’t completely on life support. Last year, for example, 13 rushers scored 200-plus points in .5 PPR, the second-highest total over the past 10 years. Yes, injury rates for plowshares finished at a near-historic low, but the position, as a whole, yielded healthy results.

Ultimately, substantial RB turnover is always most likely. From 2009-2018, the bust rate for RB1s — those drafted inside the position’s top-12 who failed to finish within three spots of the tier — was 41.7 percent. RB2s, predictably, were riskier, not meeting expectations 46.7 percent of the time. Compared to QB1s (25.0% bust rate) and WR1s (36.7%), counting on premier rushers is a pull on the slot machine. This is why ZeroRB has steadily gained popularity in recent seasons.

The best approach, as always, is steeped in value-based drafting. If you’re fortunate enough to score a pick in the No. 1-6 range in traditional formats, snatching up one of the high-volume, high-floor running behemoths is recommended. After that, it’s all a matter of preference. However, Round 3 boasts a number of quality rushing options. Kerryon Johnson, Aaron Jones, Marlon Mack, and Derrick Henry are outstanding RB2 grabs. Their availability is why going WR-WR in Rounds 1-2, especially if you’re picking close to the turn, is equally sagacious. Overall, based on the dozens of mocks I’ve participated in since May, RB-WR-RB has proven to be the best foundation for roster construction.

Finally, speaking to the bust rates discussed above, drafting for depth is paramount. In standard single QB leagues with shallow benches, there’s no need to roster multiple passers. An identical logic applies to TEs, DEFs, and Ks if you allow such soulless double-doinks in your league. Always stockpile RBs. Roster 5-6 at a minimum. It’s a violent game after all. Season-changing injuries are unavoidable.

Key Stats I Use to Evaluate RBs

Pro Football Focus, among others, does a marvelous job of tracking running back amino acids. These building blocks support or question surface data, helping us understand precisely how good/bad a RB truly is. There are a ton of different viewpoints, but none determines how skilled a rusher is better than three key measurements: 1) Yards after contact per attempt; 2) Missed or broken tackle percentage; 3) Yards created per carry. As one can easily surmise, each numerically lays out a rusher’s power, elusiveness, and creativity. Last checked, this is the lifeblood needed to be successful at the position. A season ago, Barkley, Nick Chubb and Henry were three backs who performed brilliantly in each category.

Other variables such as offensive line performance, usage, coaching strategy, red-zone work, defensive support, just to name a few, also play impactful roles, but the above stats paint the picture of potential. Grasp their importance.

Top-12 Fantasy RBs

Per the Yahoo composite expert ranks: 1) Ezekiel Elliott, 2) Saquon Barkley, 3) Alvin Kamara, 4) Christian McCaffrey, 5) David Johnson, 6) James Conner, 7) Nick Chubb, 8) Le'Veon Bell, 9) Joe Mixon, 10) Dalvin Cook, 11) Damien Williams, 12) Marlon Mack.

Brad’s ranks:

Running Back Preview
Running Back Preview

Draft-day Steal

Royce Freeman, Den (86.5 ADP, RB35) - Simpleton. First-class dum-dum. Nincompoop. After screaming from the top of Pike’s Peak that Freeman would be a RB2 at a minimum in his rookie season, everyone in the fantasy community questioned my intelligence. Naturally, they were right. It was another whiff in a long line of missed swings. Undrafted lightning bolt, Phillip Lindsay, stole the show. However, I’m fully prepared to double down.

Local reports have indicated a 1A/1B scenario could unfold when Broncos camp breaks, a similar scenario akin to Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman tandem a couple seasons ago. Within OC Rich Scangarello’s zone scheme, Freeman is expected to be the downhill complement, a role which fits his skill set perfectly. Last year, Freeman checked in with a 3.22 YAC/att and an 18.0 missed tackle percentage while seeing the most eight-plus men fronts of ANY rusher in the AFC (36.2% of time). Conversely, Lindsay, against multiple light fronts (14.1 stack%), ranked outside the RB top-50 in yards after contact per attempt (2.35) and missed tackle percentage (9.7). Suffice it to say, Freeman was victimized by idiotic coaching. A high ankle sprain suffered in Week 7 also greatly limited him.

If Denver can be competitive, the Rolls Royce should rev his engine on roughly 12-14 touches per game. Secure goal-line duties and he could finish in range of 900-1,000 combined yards with 6-8 TDs. Keep in mind, the Broncos offensive line, which ranked top-10 in run-blocking last year, is a major strength. He’s a phenomenal target in the Round 7-8 range in 12-team drafts. Bank on a handsome ROI.

Follow Brad: @YahooNoise

More Positional Previews: Quarterback | Wide Receiver

Fantasy Team Previews

AFC East: Bills | Dolphins | Jets | Patriots

NFC East: Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Washington

AFC South: Colts | Texans | Jaguars | Titans

NFC South: Buccaneers | Saints | Panthers | Falcons

AFC North: Bengals | Steelers | Ravens | Browns

NFC North: Lions | Vikings | Packers | Bears

AFC West: Chiefs | Chargers | Raiders | Broncos

NFC West: Rams | Cardinals | 49ers | Seahawks

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