The Sustainability of Veteran RB Breakouts

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I was tentatively in on Damien Williams two years ago. I didn’t love spending a third-round pick on such an unproven player, but he was the only running back of consequence in Kansas City (sorry, Darwin Thompson truthers). He had just broken out after Kareem Hunt got injured in 2018. All summer long, he looked like the clear RB1 in a Patrick Mahomes-led offense. The Chiefs didn’t draft an RB until the sixth round of the NFL Draft. They didn’t sign anyone in free agency.

Until they did. On August 31, 2019, the Chiefs signed LeSean McCoy. One week later, Shady had 10 carries for 81 yards and a touchdown. KC ended up using Damien Williams, McCoy, and Darrel Williams in a three-way split when health permitted.

It was easy to make the bull case for Williams, but that ignored the possibility of projection error. In other words, Williams looked like the clear alpha back on the best offense in football, but he was still a five-year veteran with 733 career rushing yards. Because of that, he likely had a much more fragile workload than other RBs around his ADP. He was more at risk of his team signing someone, trading for someone, or involving the backups more than expected because he had such a pedestrian career before his value spike.

Well, at least that’s my hypothesis. Today, we’ll find out whether veteran RBs whose ADP increased drastically after a breakout season truly underperform in Year N+1. Williams is the best example, but he’s far from the only one. Alex Collins, Kenyan Drake, Isaiah Crowell – all established players who saw a massive jump in ADP from one season to the next.

Getting a Group of Veteran Breakouts

I took all players with an ADP in the first six rounds since 2016 and found their ADP in the previous season. Rookie RBs and those entering their second NFL season were removed, leaving us with a list of veteran RBs and how much their ADP changed from one year to the next.

At this point, we can find the group of backs in Year 3 or later whose ADP increased the most from Year N to Year N+1.

How Did These RBs Do?

First, let's look at RBs in Year 4 or later who experienced a spike in ADP of at least three rounds.

Player

Year

Year N ADP

Year N-1 ADP

Difference

Year N Positional ADP

Year N Positional PPG Rank

Year N Win Rate

Notes

Damien Williams

2019

27.3

223.2

195.9

RB13

RB29

6.9%

Williams only played 11 games, but he wasn't even the clear starter when healthy. LeSean McCoy and Darrel Williams were involved, and Damien finished with just 111 carries and 37 targets across 11 games.

Raheem Mostert

2020

56.7

223.9

167.2

RB28

RB27

6.5%

Mostert looked like a star before getting hurt in Week 2, recording 258 total yards and two touchdowns on 30 opportunities through 1.5 games. He missed time throughout the season but performed well when healthy. He only topped a 50% snap share once, but it's safe to say he probably would have returned value at ADP if he didn't get hurt.

Marshawn Lynch

2017

51.5

210.5

159.0

RB19

RB28

6.1%

Lynch unretired in 2017 to play for his hometown Raiders and finished as the RB25, mostly as a result of staying healthy. Fantasy players who drafted Lynch likely were not thrilled with his production considering his RB19 ADP, although he did finish with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

Dion Lewis

2016

55.4

207.5

152.1

RB18

RB53

4.0%

Lewis started the season on the PUP list after needing knee surgery and returned for the final seven games. He didn't do much in his first four games back but had a respectable 213 total yards between Weeks 15-17.

Dion Lewis

2018

51.3

180.5

129.3

RB23

RB40

8.4%

Lewis worked in tandem with Derrick Henry and finished as the RB27 in PPR formats. His ADP was RB23.

Chris Thompson

2018

70.3

180.7

110.4

RB30

RB44

7.7%

Thompson played 10 games in 2018, but he wasn't all that good even when he was healthy. His efficiency – which propelled him to an RB11 PPG finish in 2017 – decreased drastically. He probably would have ended up being close-to-fair value at ADP if he hadn't gotten hurt.

Rex Burkhead

2018

70.5

165.0

94.6

RB31

RB77

6.5%

Burkhead went down early in the season and missed eight games. When healthy, the Patriots used him in a timeshare with Sony Michel, James White, and others.

Isaiah Crowell

2017

36.9

114.2

77.3

RB14

RB38

5.2%

Crowell just flat-out didn't live up to expectations, scraping past 1,000 YFS on subpar efficiency.

Austin Ekeler

2020

16.2

88.2

72.1

RB13

RB10

6.6%

Ekeler missed seven games due to injury but was electric when healthy.

Kareem Hunt

2020

61.8

122.8

61.0

RB30

RB18

13.1%

Hunt is a special case in that his ADP only rose so much because he was suspended for the first half of 2019. Without that, he probably would have been drafted around the same ADP in both seasons. Regardless, he played well alongside Nick Chubb.

James White

2019

51.8

111.8

60.0

RB25

RB21

8.0%

White finished as the RB20 from an RB25 ADP, although his win rate was slightly below-average. He ended up as decent value at ADP.

Danny Woodhead

2016

58.7

108.7

50.0

RB21

n/a

4.8%

Woodhead got hurt in Week 2 and missed the entire season.

Kenyan Drake

2020

14.6

58.3

43.7

RB12

RB23

7.0%

Drake ceded pass-catching work to Chase Edmonds and didn't end up being the three-down workhorse many expected him to be. Despite finishing as the RB14, he didn't live up to expectations.

Doug Martin

2016

31.0

73.7

42.7

RB11

RB32

4.0%

Martin missed time due to violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. When he played, he was horribly inefficient (2.9 yards per attempt) on sizable rushing volume.

DeMarco Murray

2017

17.9

56.2

38.2

RB9

RB23

5.6%

Murray shared work with Derrick Henry and underperformed despite staying healthy.

On the whole, it's not pretty. Only two of the 15 players in the table above posted an above-average best ball win rate, and just four of them outperformed their positional ADP. Kareem Hunt led all players in both categories – and he's a special circumstance because the only reason his 2019 ADP was so low was due to an eight-game suspension. Besides him, the biggest success was James White in 2019, who finished as the RB21 on a per-game basis from an RB25 ADP. Austin Ekeler and Raheem Mostert (both 2020) deserve shoutouts because they would have beaten ADP if they'd stayed healthy, but the rest of the list clearly underperformed.

On the other hand, Year 3 RBs (shown below) fared better, with about half of them returning value at cost and a couple even crushing ADP. It makes sense that these guys would be better than those in Year 4 or later; cream rises to the top in the NFL, so it's a bad sign if an RB can't break out within his first three seasons.

Player

Year

Year N ADP

Year N-1 ADP

Difference

Year N Positional ADP

Year N Positional PPG Rank

Year N Win Rate

Notes

James Conner

2019

13.0

200.0

187.0

RB7

RB16

3.5%

Conner struggled with injuries throughout 2019, first wounding his knee in Week 2 and later hurting his shoulder in Week 8. When healthy, he was productive but probably not good enough to justify his ADP.

Kenyan Drake

2018

35.4

220.1

184.7

RB17

RB21

7.3%

Frank Gore was Miami's leading rusher in 2018. Drake notched 73 targets and cleared 1,000 YFS, although he didn't have the season fantasy players were hoping for.

Alex Collins

2018

44.5

229.0

184.5

RB21

RB34

5.2%

Collins got hurt in Week 11 and missed the remainder of the season. Like Conner and Drake, he was underperforming ADP before injury.

Jay Ajayi

2017

16.2

87.2

71.0

RB8

RB34

2.8%

Ajayi had bad-but-not-terrible yardage numbers and scored two touchdowns the whole 2017 season. His win rate was so low because his ADP was a few spots in front of Todd Gurley, who posted a monstrous 30.8% win rate. Still, Ajayi definitely disappointed relative to cost.

Devonta Freeman

2016

18.4

87.5

69.1

RB7

RB7

13.1%

Freeman followed up his breakout 2015 campaign with another top-12 finish.

Chris Carson

2019

48.9

117.4

68.5

RB23

RB12

10.5%

Carson staved off Rashaad Penny once again to finish as the RB10 in PPR formats.

Melvin Gordon

2017

10.0

76.7

66.7

RB5

RB6

7.7%

Gordon had a fantastic season and was simply overshadowed by Gurley and Le'Veon Bell. His below-average win rate should not stain what was a truly great year.

Marlon Mack

2019

34.5

95.9

61.4

RB18

RB24

5.0%

Mack had a solid year, although he ceded pass-catching work to Nyheim Hines. Like Gordon, his low win rate was not an indictment on his season.

Aaron Jones

2019

31.3

90.4

59.1

RB15

RB3

16.1%

Jones crushed in 2019 and finished as the RB2.

Tevin Coleman

2017

59.9

118.1

58.2

RB23

RB20

8.3%

Coleman did what was expected working in conjunction with Devonta Freeman and finished as the RB20 on a per-game basis.

Interestingly, backs whose value fell significantly actually performed better. Among RBs in Year 3 or later with an ADP in the first six rounds, those whose ADP dropped from the previous season averaged an 8.7% win rate. Risers won at an 8.2% clip. Trimming the groups even further makes the results more noticeable. Still using the first six rounds as a cutoff point, RBs whose ADP increased by three or more rounds averaged a 7.2% win rate. Backs who had fallen at least one round averaged a 9.6% win rate. Note that I used one round for the second group because there aren't that many RBs who had an ADP in the first six rounds yet fell three rounds from the season prior, so I used one round to ensure comparable sample sizes.

Just for fun, let's also look at backs in the RB dead zone (Rounds 3-6). RBs in Year 3 or later whose ADP was up significantly averaged a 7.4% win rate, while those who fell a lot from the previous season were at 9.5%. All of this indicates we may be overreacting to a one-year sample with well-established players.

It's also worth mentioning that the takeaway could be to fade players based on the extent of their ADP spike rather than their experience. In both tables, the guys at the top underperformed more than those at the bottom. It makes sense to be wary of journeyman RBs who quickly go from "worthless" to "RB2 or better" because one season isn't much of a sample.

It doesn't matter how you slice it. Betting on veteran (and the best way to define "veteran" looks like Year 4 or later) breakouts to carry over into the following season hasn't fared well over the past five years.

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Who Fits the Mold in 2021?

Two RBs fit the mold of a veteran RB experiencing a massive jump in value from the previous season: Mike Davis and Chase Edmonds. Davis is entering his seventh NFL season, while Edmonds is going into Year 4. Davis went from an afterthought to a top-24 RB, whereas Edmonds was expected to have some relevancy entering last year.

Edmonds has a clear path to underperformance, but he also has the later ADP by nearly two rounds. The Cardinals signed James Conner this offseason, and he could slide right into the Kenyan Drake role in Kliff Kingsbury's offense. Last season, Drake had 22 carries inside the five-yard line to Edmonds' one. Arizona may want to keep Edmonds pigeonholed into his pass-catching/change-of-pace role, which would make Conner a massive value in fantasy drafts. Their ADPs have already started to converge over the last few weeks, but I'm still targeting Conner. Edmonds also becomes enticing if his fall continues.

Davis is an interesting case because the Falcons have almost nothing behind him and haven't made much of an effort to add another RB. Plus, he's on a different team, whereas most of the guys on the lists above stayed on the same team. Still, it's difficult to trust him based on the history of veteran breakouts – and Davis is a fade by this methodology due to both age and the extent of his rise. Maybe he gets treated like a true workhorse for the first time in his career in Year 7. Or maybe the Falcons use Qadree Ollison, Cordarrelle Patterson, and/or Javian Hawkins more than we think. Or they pick up another back in August or during the season. The point is that we don't know, but Davis fits a profile that has underperformed in the past.