How To Handle The Running Back Dead Zone

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I am an old dog learning a new trick.

It’s a weird trick, one that mid-round running backs drafters absolutely hate. But it feels good -- feels right -- and it’s based on avoiding running backs in the so-called RB Dead Zone, a portion of the draft that offers seemingly safe backs who disappoint much more than they deliver. What does one do if one is not taking RBs in the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds? It's a question that has altered my approach to roster construction this spring.

The RB Dead Zone is (roughly) rounds three to six -- an area where fantasy players who take wideouts early usually turn to the running back position in earnest. This is where we can find arbitrage options for first round running backs, the thinking goes. This is where we can outsmart the Robust RB drafters who strut around, flexing, showing off their workhorse first round backs.

The Dead Zone -- as the name indicates -- doesn’t usually deliver high-end running backs. In fact, it delivers quite the opposite. Think of it like the Bermuda Triangle for running backs, though we shouldn’t fear it quite as much as children of the 80s inexplicably feared the Triangle.

A Brief History of the RB Dead Zone

Establish The Run’s Jack Miller has done yeoman's work this year on highlighting the treacherous downside of taking running backs in the Dead Zone. The 2020 season, according to Miller, was the sixth consecutive year RBs in rounds 3-6 group had a below-expectation win rate in best ball leagues. Not unrelated: Miller found that wide receivers score more fantasy points than RBs at every point in the first ten rounds of fantasy drafts, and that RB scoring falls off the proverbial cliff after the first two rounds, before flattening in the eighth and ninth rounds. There’s no overarching statistical argument for deploying a structural draft strategy that includes running backs in rounds 3-6.

If this makes you upset, I understand. It upset me too.

But we must adjust. And adjust we will. Before I get into how the RB Dead Zone has changed my drafting approach in 2021, let’s take a look at how backs taken in rounds 3-6 have fared over the past few seasons.

Player

2020 ADP

2020 fantasy finish

Chris Carson

3.02 (RB16)

RB19

David Johnson

3.05 (RB17)

RB21

Todd Gurley

3.06 (RB18)

RB30

Jonathan Taylor

3.09 (RB19)

RB6

Le’Veon Bell

3.10 (RB20)

RB63

Leonard Fournette

3.11 (RB21)

RB35

Melvin Gordon

4.03 (RB22)

RB15

Mark Ingram

4.06 (RB23)

RB77

Devin Singletary

4.10 (RB24)

RB32

Raheem Mostert

5.01 (RB25)

RB48

Cam Akers

5.05 (RB26)

RB45

Kareem Hunt

5.06 (RB27)

RB10

Ronald Jones

5.08 (RB28)

RB20

David Montgomery

5.12 (RB29)

RB4

D’Andre Swift

6.01 (RB30)

RB19

J.K. Dobbins

6.03 (RB31)

RB24

James White

6.11 (RB32)

RB42

I’ll remind the dear reader that fantasy football is a game of probability above all else. Nothing is foolproof. Nothing is surefire. If it were, our little game would be boring.

The probability is that if you took one or two or three of the above backs in summer 2020, you lived to regret it. Of course, this doesn’t apply to those who drafted Kareem Hunt, the only consistent producer on the above list. Drafting Fournette or Akers or Montgomery -- if you had the stomach to keep them rostered during the hard times -- paid off handsomely in the season's final weeks. Still, we’re interested in probability, and the probability of Dead Zone backs working out was something short of good. In fact, it was catastrophic for those who drafted many of the above players.

Now let’s see which players fell into the Dead Zone in 2019.

Player

2019 ADP

2019 fantasy finish

Damien Williams

3.01 (RB13)

RB38

Chris Carson

3.03 (RB14)

RB13

Kerryon Johnson

3.04 (RB15)

RB54

Aaron Jones

3.05 (RB16)

RB2

Devonta Freeman

3.06 (RB17)

RB20

David Montgomery

3.07 (RB18)

RB24

Josh Jacobs

3.09 (RB19)

RB22

Sony Michel

4.01 (RB20)

RB31

Mark Ingram

4.04 (RB21)

RB11

Melvin Gordon

4.06 (RB22)

RB23

Derrick Henry

4.08 (RB23)

RB5

Marlon Mack

4.11 (RB24)

RB24

James White

4.12 (RB25)

RB19

Duke Johnson

5.04 (RB26)

RB29

Phillip Lindsay

5.08 (RB27)

RB19

Tevin Coleman

5.10 (RB28)

RB40

Miles Sanders

5.11 (RB29)

RB15

Austin Ekeler

6.02 (RB30)

RB4

Derrius Guice

6.10 (RB31)

RB69

You may or may not notice that the RB Dead Zone is deadest in the third and fourth rounds, with the notable expectation of Aaron Jones in 2019. In both 2019 and 2020, we see fifth and sixth round RBs vastly outperforming their average draft positions. It’s worth remembering that the Dead Zone is called the Dead Zone because wide receivers drafted in this range outperform their running back counterparts by significant margins. Receivers taken in the RB Dead Zone tend to come (much) closer to matching the production of the elite wideouts taken in the first two rounds; not so for backs taken in rounds 3-6.

The above charts don’t capture the whole context of why we might fade running backs until round seven or eight.

What To Do With Dead Zone Picks?

If I’m not taking running backs in rounds 3-6, who am I taking, you might ask. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with this spring, and the answers often create a roster markedly different from the ones I’ve built in recent offseasons.

A drafter truly committed to escaping the grips of the dreaded Dead Zone might cast an eye toward “onesie” positions -- namely, quarterback and tight end. These positions have long been de-emphasized by savvy fantasy heads largely because we only have to start one of each in traditional leagues, whereas we’re starting upwards of four receivers or three running backs every week. The rise of tight ends who put up elite receiver numbers and fantasy point scoring QB machines who pile on yardage and touchdowns on the ground as well as through the air has changed the calculus.

In one-QB formats, you’ll almost always have your choice of the game’s top-end signal callers in the RB Dead Zone. This comes with the added bonus of stacking these QBs with the elite pass catchers you’ve drafted in the first and second round: Kyler Murray with DeAndre Hopkins, Patrick Mahomes with Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce, Josh Allen with Stefon Diggs, Dak Prescott with Amari Cooper or CeeDee Lamb, Justin Herbert with Keenan Allen, or Aaron Rodgers with Davante Adams, should the former choose football over Jeopardy in 2021. You could also land the slightly underdrafted Lamar Jackson, who doesn’t require a stacking partner in Baltimore’s ultra-run heavy offense.

RB Dead Zone avoiders could land Darren Waller, George Kittle, Kyle Pitts, or T.J. Hockenson along with a top quarterback, depending on how wild-eyed your league mates are in pursuing a high-scoring tight end in one-TE, non-TE premium formats. Perhaps you believe Hockenson doesn’t belong in this conversation. Detroit’s mass of vacated targets and the lack of viable pass-catching options in the Lions Offense might say otherwise. Volume remains king in fantasy football, at last check.

Using two of your round 3-6 picks on a big name QB and tight end would then give you the greenlight to stock up on later-round running backs, collecting them like a survivalist might collect canned food. Drafting from an underground bunker isn’t necessary, but it’s not discouraged either.

That means you could land backs who will likely have every-week value -- guys like Damien Harris, Gus Edwards, Michael Carter, James Conner, and yes, even David Johnson. Beyond the seventh and eighth round, you’d be free to pass on quarterbacks and tight ends in favor of runners like Jamaal Williams and Kenyan Drake. And if they fall far enough, you might scoop up Zero RB darlings Tony Pollard and Alexander Mattison, each of whom become every-week fantasy starters if the starters ahead of them miss time in 2021.

Take some time to toy with avoiding the RB Dead Zone and see how your squad turns out. Even if you, like me, are an old dog.