Putting down year for RBs in 2020 into context

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In 2015, 11 running backs had an ADP within the first two rounds. Only one of them - Matt Forte - finished with an above-average best ball win rate. Devonta Freeman emerged from a Round 8 ADP to finish as the RB1. DeAngelo Williams and Danny Woodhead were top-five at the position. Put simply, it was an apocalyptic year for RBs.

In 2016, four wide receivers were selected before the first RB. Fantasy players who took the discount on David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, or Ezekiel Elliott were rewarded handsomely.

There was no macro-level change between the two years. The market just overreacted to what it had seen most recently. Recency bias affects everyone; fantasy players, of course, are no exception.

On the other hand, things do change sometimes. The NFL is a dynamic entity - just look at the explosion in passing numbers over the last decade. It’s not easy to figure out what’s signal and what’s noise in an ever-changing environment, but you can get a leg up over your opponents if you do it successfully. Today, we’ll break down the RB position to determine what’s real and what’s not, plus how you should attack the position in 2021.

The Big Picture

Late-round RBs performed admirably last season, but it wasn’t pretty for guys drafted earlier. On the whole, RB scoring was down almost everywhere in 2020.

RB Production by ADP in 2015-19 vs. 2020
RB Production by ADP in 2015-19 vs. 2020

Interestingly, rushing production was the same as ever. Although Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley missed most of the year due to injury, backs like Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry offset that by posting massive rushing numbers.

RB Rushing Points by ADP in 2015-19 vs. 2020
RB Rushing Points by ADP in 2015-19 vs. 2020

Conversely, RB receiving production torpedoed. That might not come as a surprise considering some of the most prolific pass-catching RBs got hurt (McCaffrey, Barkley, Austin Ekeler).

Receiving points per game by RBs in 2015-19 vs. 2020
Receiving points per game by RBs in 2015-19 vs. 2020

You might think it’ll just rebound in 2021, but it’s actually the continuation of a worrying trend. As Rich Hribar of Sharp Football Analysis found, the RB position as a whole has been less involved in the passing game over the last few years after maxing out around 2017.

Year

Target Share

Receiving Yards Share

Receiving Touchdowns Share

2015

19.8%

16.9%

12.9%

2016

18.5%

15.6%

11.8%

2017

21.2%

18.3%

14.6%

2018

20.5%

16.9%

13.8%

2019

20.0%

16.7%

13.1%

2020

18.3%

14.3%

11.7%

RBs accounted for 18.3% of targets, 14.3% of receiving yards, and 11.7% of receiving touchdowns last year - all of which were six-year lows. Hribar discovered that NFL teams are now using WRs more than they used to, so RBs getting a smaller slice of the pie makes sense on some level. With WRs demanding more targets, RBs probably won’t see as much work as they did even just a few years ago. Still, it’s reasonable to expect RB receiving production to bounce back slightly in 2021 with all of the high-end pass-catchers healthy.

Year

RB 1-12 MS RB Targets

RB 13-24 MS RB Targets

RB 25-36 MS RB Targets

RB 1-12 MS RB Yards

RB 13-24 MS RB Yards

RB 25-36 MS RB Yards

2015

18.7%

18.2%

15.4%

20.0%

19.4%

14.3%

2016

20.6%

17.2%

17.8%

22.4%

18.4%

16.3%

2017

26.3%

13.7%

14.2%

28.5%

13.2%

14.3%

2018

28.8%

12.8%

14.9%

32.0%

12.1%

15.0%

2019

24.5%

18.3%

14.1%

27.4%

17.6%

13.6%

2020

20.6%

19.0%

15.5%

21.8%

18.0%

16.0%

This is where things get even more interesting. Three or four years ago, it looked like we were headed for a changing of the guard at the RB position, in which the elite RBs would score an even number of points through the air and on the ground. However, it quickly shifted back over the last two seasons. It’s possible 2017 and 2018 were outliers rather than proof of a paradigm shift.

Year

RB 1-12 Percentage of Points via Rushing

2015

61.5%

2016

67.4%

2017

52.7%

2018

50.7%

2019

59.7%

2020

66.4%

However, RB1 production has reverted back to a rushing skew over the last two seasons. Some of that is due to schematic changes at the NFL level (e.g. more WRs on the field), but some of it is just players like Henry and Nick Chubb ascending into RB1 territory. They have paved the way for one-dimensional RBs to finish among the elites once again, which also makes legitimate dual-threat RB1s (hello, Mr. McCaffrey) even more scarce. On the whole, RB receiving production should bounce back in 2021, but there is a signal that RBs will be less involved in the passing game compared to a few years ago.

The Middle Rounds

Remember that graph from earlier with RB scoring by ADP for 2015-19 vs. 2020? The curves differ most in Rounds 7-10, meaning that was the range in which RB scoring was down the most last season. That’s atypical because Rounds 7-10 are normally an RB hotspot. In fact, there’s usually not much of a difference between Rounds 3-6 and Rounds 7-10, hence the “RB dead zone” that Zero RB godfather Shawn Siegele mentioned in his interview with C.D. Carter.

Between 2015-19, RBs with an ADP in Rounds 7-10 averaged a 9.2% win rate and 125.6 points. In 2020, those RBs posted a 7.6% win rate and averaged just 68.9 points. Only four out of 15 players posted an above-expectation win rate. Going year-by-year highlights just how unprecedented of a year it was for this group.

Year

Mid-Round RB Win Rate

Points

2015

10.9%

145.3

2016

8.3%

127.2

2017

7.9%

103.9

2018

9.6%

131.4

2019

9.4%

120.9

2020

7.6%

68.9

Considering there’s no trend of RBs in Rounds 7-10 deteriorating between 2015-19, it’s safe to say last year was just an aberration that should correct itself in 2021. This range has historically been a breeding ground for breakout RBs (9.2% average win rate in 2015-19!), so don’t panic based on 2020 results. C.D. has you covered on this too - check out his Zero RB tiers.

Late-Round Breakouts

While late-round RBs didn’t actually score more points, they had a strong year relative to the rest of the position. In fact, RBs with an ADP outside of the first 10 rounds averaged an 8.8% win rate, easily the best mark of the last six seasons. For reference, late-round RBs averaged a 7.9% win rate between 2015-19.

Year

Late-Round RB Win Rate

Points

2015

7.9%

70.2

2016

7.5%

74.9

2017

8.1%

85.0

2018

8.4%

72.1

2019

7.5%

68.4

2020

8.8%

69.2

You can see the distribution of win rates in the density plot below; clearly, 2020 was a successful year for these guys.

Late-Round RB Win Rates by Year
Late-Round RB Win Rates by Year

Even more impressive is the fact that league-winners like Myles Gaskin and J.D. McKissic weren’t picked in enough drafts to be included in the dataset. You were sitting pretty if you went with a Zero RB strategy in best ball, but it was even more effective in redraft because you had access to those undrafted breakouts.

Still, scoring was down across the entire position, even near the end of drafts. There were obviously a few massive breakouts, but these RBs didn’t score more than usual on the whole. They just benefited from a position-wide drop in production which probably won’t repeat itself. The “RB dead zone” is well-documented, but it extended even further than usual last year. Expect a return to normalcy in 2021 with more RB breakouts coming in Rounds 7-10 and fewer in the double-digit rounds.

That’s not to say there won’t be league-winners in the double-digit rounds - there almost certainly will - but it’s important to realize late-round RBs looked comparatively good last season because it was a down year for RBs overall.

Putting It All Together

RB scoring was down everywhere last year except for the last few rounds. As a result, RBs drafted outside of the first 10 rounds had robust win rates, even though they didn’t score more than usual. In the early rounds, RBs matched their 2015-19 output on the ground but disappointed in a major way through the air. With high-end pass-catchers - particularly McCaffrey and Barkley - returning from injury in 2021, this group should rebound slightly, although the macro-level trend of NFL teams using more WRs means the RB position probably won’t be as involved as they were even just a few seasons ago.

RBs with an ADP in Rounds 7-10 have historically been a strong bet, but last season was uncharacteristically terrible for this group. Their scoring was sliced almost in half. However, there’s no trend of these RBs getting worse year-over-year, so it’s likely things return to normal in 2021. As a result, fantasy players who load up on WRs in the “RB dead zone” would be wise to pivot to RB in Round 7 or 8. In other words, keep the long view of how prolific this range has been for RBs historically rather than overreacting to one poor season. In general, that’s the major takeaway: The market tends to be shortsighted, so you can get an edge over your opponents by looking at trends over multiple years.