Earlier this week, we unveiled the 2016 opportunity scores for rookie wide receivers. Opportunity scores are a numbers-based formula for determining which teams are the best landing spots for rookies. In fantasy and real football, performance is largely a function of opportunity, whether created through talent, draft position or a lack of roster competition.
The foundation of our formula for receivers is the relationship between quarterback and receiver ADP. For running backs, there isn’t a position like QB to use as the independent variable. What I did find in my development of running back opportunity scores last year, is that prior year fantasy production is a good proxy for how backfields are perceived.
Let’s look at that historical relationship between prior year production for a backfield and its current year combined ADP. You can see a strong relationship and trendline through the middle of the data.
Running back valuation is calculated as the inverse of ADP: the last pick in a 20-round, 12-team draft (240) minus ADP. You then add up all the values in a backfield to come up with the team score.
The trendline isn’t as steep as it is for the QB/Receiver relationship, but it does slope down roughly 100 ADP spots from last year’s most productive backfield to the least productive.
Below are the team differentials, which we’re calling opportunity scores for 2015 going into the NFL draft. The logic is that the more undervalued a current backfield, the more likely that there is opportunity for a rookie running back to have immediate production.
Dallas was an obviously undervalued backfield, but despite lots of speculation, the team did not draft a running back last year. New England also didn’t, but both teams saw running backs on their rosters — Joseph Randle and Legarrette Blount, respectively — skyrocket in value after the draft.
The Jaguars did add T.J. Yeldon at the beginning of the second round of the NFL draft, and the Falcons added Tevin Coleman in the third round.
Now we can apply the same formula for 2016. Luckily, we have the most accurate, up-to-date assessments of current drafters’ opinions through the RotoViz Best Ball ADP App. Using ADP from the app, here is a current landscape of quarterback/receiver relationships.
Remember that teams under the trendline should have undervalued backfields, and are likely great landing spots for rookie running backs. Teams above the trendline already have historically pricey backfields, and shouldn’t need to add depth in the early rounds of the draft.
Now let’s translate the differentials between data points and the trendline into a more digestible format
DeMarco Murray has been traded to the Titans, management is reportedly willing to trade Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles is a potential salary cap cut. There is already buzz around the Eagles taking consensus No. 1 prospect Ezekiel Elliott with their first round pick at No. 8 overall. While I think it would be a strategic error for the Eagles to select a running back early, that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.
Running back is certainly one of the Colts’ primary needs. Soon-to-be 33-year-old Frank Gore is all that stands between a rookie draft pick and fantasy stardom. Gore looks to be on the wrong side of the career hill, playing in all 16 games last year, but never topping 100 yards in any.
The Patriots, again, are near the top of the list. While Belichick & Co. could use a later round pick on a running back, their recent draft history suggests an earlier selection is unlikely. It’s probably a better idea to draft whoever looks to be the most likely “big-back” complement to Dion Lewis.
The Dolphins and Raiders being next on the list shows a substantial lack of faith among fantasy drafters that Jay Ajayi and Latavius Murray are secure presumptive lead backs. It makes sense that there would be skepticism about Ajayi: he was never the main guy last year, the Dolphins only used a fifth round pick on him, and the team hasn’t been shy talking about its interest to add to the backfield.
Murray being so unloved is a bit more confusing. Murray wasn’t spectacular last year, but nearly 1,300 yards from scrimmage is nothing to scoff at. You never know what NFL personnel executives will do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Raiders passed on an early running back during the draft and Murray’s ADP rises in the coming months.