By: Seth Keller (Twitter: @ffTheAtHomeDad)
Updated: 7/24/2017

Rookie RB Historical Success

I spend a lot of time obsessing over fantasy football, probably more than I should, definitely more than my wife approves of. And, at this time of the year, there is nothing better to do than as many mock drafts and best-ball leagues as possible. Some friends of mine have been co-drafting with me and we have had some really heated debates about this year’s rookie RBs. One of my friends, much like the rest of twitter, is in love with Joe Mixon’s potential for 2017. I, on the other hand, am not sold.

And it’s not that I don’t like the 2017 rookie class. I think there could be some real studs in the mix. The problem is most of them would have to defy history in order to be worth drafting in best-ball and redraft leagues. Let me explain (because I know recency bias of Zeke and Howard are going to make this a difficult sell). Over the past 5 years, there have been 101 RBs drafted. Of those 101 RBs, only 9 have had a top 12 finish. And only 15 have had top 24 finishes. Simple rounding gives us about 9% chance to get a rookie that will be an RB1 and a 15% chance to draft a rookie that finishes as and RB2. 4 of the top 12 finishes came from RBs selected in the first round. Only Melvin Gordon and David Wilson were drafted in the first and didn’t put up RB1 numbers. In fact they were both outside the top 50 RBs.

But to compare finishes from one year to another raises the issue of down years for the entire position. Think 2015, the year that turned most people into believers of the zero-RB draft strategy. To combat this, I found the mean and median scores across the past five years to create cut scores (average of mean and median) for RB1, RB2, RB3/Flex and bottom 50. As you can see even though 2015 was a down year for “elite” RBs the cut scores for RB2 and RB3 were right on track with the other five years. However, David Johnson finished as the 7th RB in 2015 but was below the cut score for RB1, for our purposes his 173 point finish only earns him an RB2 ranking. For the rest of this article when I refer to an RB1, it means that they finished with more standard fantasy points than the RB1 cut score in the chart below.

The next step was to go through every RB drafted since 2012 (throw out any FB sorry Aaron Ripkowski) and pulled their standard fantasy points at the end of their rookie season. Then went through and separated out each running back by round to figure out the percentage of 1st round RBs with RB1, RB2, RB3/Flex or bottom 50 finishes. Rinse and repeat for all 7 rounds of the past five years and you get the percentages below.

Not surprising, you see better finishes in the early rounds and more likelihood to bust in the later rounds. What is surprising though is the complete drop off in RB2 or better finishes after the second round. Another surprising fact, although probably not statistically viable, if a second RB was drafted in the first round, he was a bust (Melvin Gordon and David Wilson). So what’s the takeaway? First, Fournette has the strongest historical chance to make a fantasy impact in 2017. This isn’t breaking news but the other takeaway is the likelihood for a mid-round back to finish RB3 or Flex play is worth it if the price is right. Which brings us to the final chart which compares the 2017 rookies’ ADP according to FantasyPros (pulled 7/20/17) to their historical likelihood to succeed.

* NA means they were not listed on the consensus Running Back ADP on FantasyPros

Although Fournette has the highest historical chance of become an RB1 he is being drafted at his ceiling making him someone I don’t want to spend the draft capital on in redraft/best-ball leagues. McCaffrey, although I have a man-crush on you in Dynasty, I also will not be buying because he is also being drafted at his ceiling (plus the whole Melvin Gordon, David Johnson jinx). Cook and Mixon fall into the same boat with their ADP a little higher than their most likely finish. Value can be found when looking at guys like Hunt, Kamara, Conner and Foreman. All four of these guys are in situations where they are not far from a starting job and either on an explosive offense (Kamara and the Saints, Conner and the Steelers) or a team that wants to run the ball (Hunt and the Chiefs, Foreman and Houston). And, the best part is they are all being drafted outside the top 36 where historically you would expect them to finish. Hunt’s current ADP of 40 is a little too close to where he should finish but Kamara, Conner, and Foreman are all going 20 to 30 picks later than their potential RB3 finish.

My personal favorite after doing this research is Kamara. He is currently going as the 62 RB off the board and has the skill set and landing spot to be effective. All he needs now is an opportunity to see the field. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that the Saints don’t like giving the ball to Mark Ingram for some weird reason. Hopefully they give it to Kamara.