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Running Back Breakouts: Should You Draft Rookies in Redraft? – The Wrong Read, No. 37

Welcome to the 37th installment of the “The Wrong Read.” This article series started as one that reflected on recent podcast episodes and extended the ideas discussed there to logical conclusions with broader applications. Since then it’s become a space for me to write about whatever I want, with irregular references to various podcast episodes.

Last week’s edition of “The Wrong Read” looked at the frequency of WR breakouts at various levels of NFL experience. What we found was that for early picks, breakouts happen most frequently in the first three years — especially in the first two. If an early pick hasn’t broken out after three years in the league, the chances of doing so are low. On the other hand, late-round picks and UDFAs tend not to break out immediately. They see a spike in Year 2, after sitting on the bench for a year, and in Year 5, after possibly changing teams. Do the same trends hold at other positions? In this article I want to examine RB breakouts.

RB Fantasy Scoring Changes and Breakout Rates

The RB position largely mirrors the WR position in terms of when they are most likely to improve. RBs on average, like WRs, do not tend to show improvement after Year 2:

Make no mistake — this isn’t because individual RBs tend to get better only after their rookie seasons and then worse every year thereafter. It’s because across the league, RBs tend to break out most often in Year 2:

As with WR, we see a bump in Year 5, after rookie contracts have ended and players find themselves on new teams.

These results don’t necessarily seem to fit with some other work we’ve done at RotoViz showing that rookie RBs tend to have an outsized likelihood of week-winning games, or that rookie RBs tend to outperform in the fantasy playoffs. So what’s going on here?

RB Breakouts and Draft Position

As with WRs, the chart above doesn’t tell the whole story, because as with WRs, early draft picks break out much earlier than later draft picks:

What this chart is saying is that historically, nearly 25 percent of RBs drafted in the top-100 picks have broken out in their rookie seasons. Early-round RBs are much more likely to break out in their rookie seasons than at any other time in their careers.

I’m defining a RB breakout as a top-24 season. Eight RBs were drafted in the top-100 picks this season. These results suggest two of them will move into the top 24 in 2018. Additionally, three of the seven RBs drafted in the top-100 picks last year have yet to break out. At least one of them should break out in 2018.1

If you’re a RB picked in the top 100 who hasn’t broken out by Year 3, your chances of doing so are very low. This is bad news for players like T.J. Yeldon, Ameer Abdullah, Ty Montgomery,2 and Matt Jones. Year 4 breakouts are not impossible for high draft picks — we saw one last year from Jerick McKinnon — but they are rare, occurring only about five percent of the time.

Later-round picks and UDFAs have a little more hope for a late breakout, at least relative to their chances of breaking out as rookies. But the breakout rate for later picks does not surpass five percent until Year 7, where the bump is mainly the result of a small sample size.3

The moral of the story is that you should mostly be trying to acquire RBs picked in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, and you should be trying to acquire them as rookies, even in redraft.

  1. Because I’m using total season scoring to rank players, Dalvin Cook did not break out last year by my definition, although he is being drafted well within the top-12 RBs, and is certainly the most likely candidate among 2017 rookie RBs to truly break out in 2018.  (back)
  2. Montgomery is potentially a special case because he did not start his NFL career as a RB.  (back)
  3. Of the 416 RBs to either be drafted after Pick 100 or to be signed as undrafted free agents since 2000, only 52 have even played seven years in the NFL.  (back)

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