Characteristics of an Early-Round Bust

Jennifer Eakins
Sports Illustrated

Fantasy football owners expect their first few picks to be automatic, players who can and will lead teams to championships. Their contributions should be significant, and they should be counted on every time they take the field. Of course, despite that unfailing confidence, anyone who has played fantasy football for even one season knows that isn’t the case.

Busts happen every season, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Running backs and receivers. Youngsters and veterans. Players on bad teams, and their counterparts on good ones. Busts are a fact of the fantasy game, and it’s hard to recover if one of your first three picks falls far short of expectations.

What if we could somehow predict which players projected to go in the first two rounds would falter? If that we’re possible, we could get an edge on the competition and save ourselves some headache, and heartache, along the way. That’s what we’ll strive to do in this column.

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When examining the characteristics of an early-round bust, I decided to look at players who were selected in the first or second round over the previous three seasons, hoping to find some correlation. I considered only backs and receivers, the positions that dominate the first two rounds. The sample included only players who appeared in at least 10 games that season, eliminating players with major injuries. To qualify as a bust, players must have ended the season at least 10 spots below their positional average draft position and/or come up at least 100 points shy of their projected output.

Running Backs

Despite the flack backs have received as early-round candidates in recent years, only six of them fit the criteria outlined above from 2015 through 2017:

RB Busts (2015-17) Player Year Team ADP Positional ADP End Rank PPR Points Eddie Lacy 2015 Packers 1.04 RB3 RB33 140.6 C.J. Anderson 2015 Broncos 1.11 RB6 RB31 141.3 Jeremy Hill 2015 Bengals 2.02 RB8 RB20 168.3 Lamar Miller 2016 Texans 1.10 RB4 RB19 191.1 Jay Ajayi 2017 Dolphins/Eagles 2.02 RB7 RB36 135.1 DeMarco Murray 2017 Titans 2.03 RB8 RB20 171.5

Eddie Lacy, C.J. Anderson and Jeremy Hill all let down their fantasy owners in 2015. In a typical draft, Lacy heard his name called fourth overall, after Adrian Peterson, Antonio Brown, and Le'Veon Bell. Instead of cementing himself as an elite back and fantasy player, he ran for just 758 yards and scored five total touchdowns, making him the No. 33 back in PPR leagues. The Packers offense was mediocre, finishing 15th in total offense and 27th in yards per play. The line was an issue, evidenced by Aaron Rodgers getting sacked 46 times, fifth-most in the league. Lacy also failed to make himself a big part of the passing game. He netted 28 targets, 51st among running backs. Rarely does a back with that few opportunities as a receiver return first-round value in the modern game.

Anderson was on the Super Bowl-winning Broncos offense in 2015, yet ended the season as the 31st-ranked back in PPR scoring. Coming off a year where he was a top-10 back, Anderson’s ADP justifiably made him the 11th overall pick and sixth back taken in a typical draft. What went wrong for him? Role and game script really hurt him and his fantasy owners. They combined to limit him to 11.8 touches per game, 42nd among backs that season.

Hill is the most interesting case from 2015. He led his team in rushing yards and was 13th in total in touches among backs, but posted a pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry. The Bengals were first in the AFC North with a 12-4 record and ranked seventh in total offense in the league, but Hill still came up short of expectations. Thanks to 11 rushing touchdowns, he was the No. 14 back in standard leagues and the No. 20 back in PPR formats, but that’s not what owners need from an early-second-round pick. His anomalous 2014 season fooled those who believed in him in 2015.

Lamar Miller was the only back to truly go bust in 2016. After being the fourth back off the board by ADP, Miller ended the season as the RB19 in PPR points, averaging 13.7 per contest. This is a case where the environment was largely to blame. Brock Osweiler started 14 games for the Texans that season, which had a limiting effect across the offense. Miller’s 21.4 touches per game were among the most in the league, but Osweiler failed to keep defenses honest. That contributed heavily to Miller averaging just 4.0 yards per carry. He was also surprisingly absent from the passing game, getting just 39 targets.

Last year we saw two backs not meet the expectations of their elevated ADPs. Jay Ajayi was drafted early in the second round in a typical draft, but ended the year outside the top 30. His season, however, was unique. A rift between he and Adam Gase resulted in him being set to the Eagles from the Dolphins at midseason. In Philadelphia, he joined an offense that was already flying high, and wasn’t going to alter what it was already doing for him, a strategy which worked out pretty well, if I’m not mistaken. Ajayi averaged 19.7 attempts per game with the Dolphins, but 10 per contest with the Eagles. He may have gone bust, but there’s likely not much we can learn from his case. It isn’t often that a player drafted as highly as Ajayi was gets traded halfway through the season, entirely changing his offensive environment.

DeMarco Murray’s slide last season was similar to Hill’s in 2015. His success from the previous year set outsize expectations that he simply could not meet. The Titans ranked 15th in rushing and 19th in total offense in 2017, earning a playoff berth with their 9-7 record. Murray shared the backfield with Derrick Henry all season, getting 184 carries to Henry’s 176, as well as 47 targets. Put simply, Murray needed more volume to live up to his ADP than the Titans were willing to give him.

Wide Receivers

Nine wideouts fit the bust parameters laid out at the beginning of the column.

WR Busts (2015-17) Player Year Team ADP Positional ADP End Rank PPR Points Randall Cobb 2015 Packers 2.04 WR7 WR26 202.9 DeAndre Hopkins 2016 Texans 1.06 WR5 WR25 197.4 Allen Robinson 2016 Jaguars 1.09 WR6 WR26 197.3 Brandon Marshall 2016 Jets 2.01 WR7 WR49 156.7 Alshon Jeffery 2016 Bears 2.10 WR13 WR55 146.1 Mike Evans 2017 Buccaneers 1.08 WR4 WR17 201.1 Jordy Nelson 2017 Packers 1.11 WR6 WR46 137.2 Dez Bryant 2017 Cowboys 2.08 WR9 WR24 186.5 Amari Cooper 2017 Raiders 2.09 WR10 WR35 158.4

The 2015 season was an odd one in Green Bay, the only time Aaron Rodgers didn’t carry the offense to elite status. That, in part, explains Randall Cobb finishing the year 26th among receivers in PPR scoring after having the position’s seventh-highest ADP. The unforeseen struggles of the entire passing game relative to expectations, tied to Jordny Nelson’s preseason ACL tear, largely explain why Cobb went bust. He, too, had a role to play, with a 61.2% catch rate that ranked 124th among pass-catchers.

Four receivers didn’t make the grade in 2016: DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery. One thing all four had in common? Terrible quarterbacks. Hopkins is the only one still with the same team, while Robinson was a Jaguar, Marshall was a Jet and Jeffery was a Bear. That means the four played with, respectively, Brock Osweiler, Blake Bortles, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the combination of Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley. Those four offenses all ranked 25th or worse in passing offense. We’ve already seen Hopkins and Jeffery bounce back, and there’s plenty of optimism for Robinson this season after he missed last year with a torn ACL. We can chalk these failures up to the quarterbacks, not the receivers, a valuable lesson to take forward.

Four more receivers busted on their owners last year, and we can split them into two groups. Mike Evans and Amari Cooper were true head-scratchers. The Buccaneers ranked fourth in the league in passing offense, and Evans led the team in targets, receptions and yards. Yet, he still failed to reach expectations in any of those stats, and scored just five touchdowns, ending the year as the No. 17 receiver in PPR leagues. His 52.2% catch rate was 182nd among pass-catchers, but it was the lack of touchdowns that did him in. Even in Evans’ best seasons, he hasn’t been a reception or yardage monster. He makes his money in the end zone, and his realtively low touchdown total held him back last year.

Cooper, meanwhile, ended last season 25 spots from his WR10 ADP, with an 81-point dropoff from projections to reality. Part of his struggles owe to Derek Carr, who dealt with a back injury and himself again failed to take the leap that has been expected of him since his rookie year. Carr sat in the lower half of the league in nearly every statistical category and underperformed league average yards per attempt for the fourth straight season, which makes it tough for a WR to achieve elite fantasy status. Michael Crabtree led the Raiders in targets, and was again Carr’s favored receiver in the ree zone.

Jordy Nelson’s struggles are relatively easy to explain. First, Aaron Rodgers missed the majority of the season with a broken collarbone. Brett Hundley had the league’s fourth-worst touchdown rate and second-worst YPA, and ranked 23rd in completion percentage. At 32 years old and with an ACL tear in his rear-view mirror, Nelson finally started showing signs of wear. He wasn’t nearly the deep threat he had been previously in his career, and without Rodgers being the tide that lifts all ships, he couldn’t make lemonade from the Hundley situation.

Similarly, Dez Bryant’s 2017 bust season resulted from his own losing a step, and his quarterback’s struggles. Dak Prescott was serviceable, ranking 13th in completion percentage, 19th in YPA, and 16th in total passing yards, but he wasn’t quite as explosive as he was as a rookie. The blame falls more on Bryant’s shoulders, though. His 52.3% catch rate ranked 179th among all pass-catchers, while his 12.1 yards per reception ranked 59th. The targets were there, as Bryant finished 12th among receivers in that category, but he couldn’t turn the opportunity into the expected production. He ended the year as the No. 24 receiver in PPR formats, 15 spots worse than his ADP.

Bottom Line

If drafting a running back in the first few rounds, be sure you’re confident in his offensive line, as well as his role in the passing game. As for receivers, many of them are only as good as the quarterback throwing them the ball. Pure talent can get them so far, but overall environment is crucial. Look for at least solid quarterbacks in, at minimum, respectable offenses.

Let your league mates grab the big names in not-so-great situations and instead focus on players who are set up for success not only physically, but by the competency of their teammates.

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