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Rookie Running Back Lessons: What History Says about Leonard Fournette

This year two running backs – Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey – were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. In solidarity, dynasty owners are drafting them with top-three rookie picks. This synchronicity has occurred 18 times in the last nine years, with noteworthy results.

The initiation of two new members into this fraternity occasions an opportunity to study history. A cohort of just 18 doesn’t lend itself to the construction of a data model, but to borrow from the social sciences, case studies may enhance our understanding and refine our expectations. Let’s begin by getting reacquainted with these RBs, and then discuss whether or not fantasy drafters have been right to hitch their valuations of these players so closely to the NFL’s.

The Stories

A brief synopsis of the fantasy career of each running back taken in the first round of the NFL draft since 2008. Each player’s NFL draft pick and rookie draft ADP1 is provided as an indicator of the esteem in which the player was held by the dynasty community.

2008

Darren McFadden, NFL 4, Rookie 1

His lone RB1 season didn’t come until his third year. His next-best season (RB13) didn’t come until five years later. Three additional RB3 seasons make five useful performances in a nine-year career.

Jonathan Stewart, 13, 2.3

Never an RB1, Stewart does have six seasons as an RB2 or RB3.

Felix Jones, 22, 6.8

His best season (RB23) didn’t come until his third year. Produced one other useful (RB35) season over six years.

Rashard Mendenhall, 23, 3

Offered nothing as a rookie. Managed one RB1 and two RB2 seasons in a six-year career.

Chris Johnson, 24, 8

Starting as a rookie, Johnson had six straight RB1 seasons, followed by a borderline RB3 season. One of the few hits.

2009

Knowshon Moreno, 12, 1.3

Posted two straight RB2 seasons to start his career, but his only RB1 season came in his fifth season.

Donald Brown, 27, 4.2

Dammit Donald managed an RB3 finish in his fifth season.

Beanie Wells, 31, 2.9

One RB2 performance in a four-year career.

2010

C.J. Spiller, 9, 3.4

Spiller and Best carried similar dynasty valuations heading into 2010 rookie drafts. Spiller was an RB3 in his second year and an RB1 in his third. He followed up with another RB3 season and has been fantasy irrelevant ever since.

Ryan Mathews, 12, 1.3

Beginning as a rookie, he posted RB3, RB1, RB3, RB2 seasons. After a down 2014, he posted consecutive RB3 seasons in 2015 and 2016. A relative success.

Jahvid Best, 30, 3.3

It’s easy to say he shouldn’t have been drafted so early by the Lions or by fantasy drafters. Peruse the Dynasty App, however, and you’ll see that his value started and stayed high. An RB2 rookie season was all he managed over three injury-plagued years.

2011

Mark Ingram, 28, 1.8

The lone first-round NFL RB of 2011, Ingram split the first-overall rookie pick honors with A.J. Green. Ingram’s rookie ADP also handily bested Julio Jones’ 2.8. Ouch. If you held Ingram through three fantasy irrelevant seasons to begin his career, you were rewarded with RB2, RB1, and RB1 finishes the past three seasons.

2012

Trent Richardson, 3, 1

Undeterred by Ingram’s RB46 finish as a rookie, dynasty drafters made Richardson the undisputed first overall pick in 2012 rookie drafts. Things started well with an RB1 finish as a rookie. Then came two RB3 seasons before he washed out of the league.

Doug Martin, 31, 2.7

Martin’s been much more valuable than Richardson but almost as frustrating. His overall RB finishes: RB2, RB55, RB51, RB4, RB55.

David Wilson, 32, 6.2

Wilson is one of only two first-round NFL backs to make it to the sixth pick in rookie drafts. A tantalizing talent, injuries forced him to retire before he made a fantasy impact.

2015

Todd Gurley, 10, 1.3

After a three-year lull, the NFL took two RBs in 2015’s first round. Gurley has an RB1 and RB3 campaign to his credit but is stuck on a poor offense.

Melvin Gordon, 15, 2.8

A disastrous rookie campaign that included no rushing TDs was followed by a splendid seventh overall finish last year. The clear lead back on a good offense, he’s a premium dynasty asset.

NFL Valuation

One could make a career out of decoding the NFLs methods and rationales for valuing college prospects. Suffice it to say that these 18 players had sterling collegiate resumes. The table at the end has both individual production and combine data, which I encourage you to peruse. Doing so will make it plain that each of these prospects was elite in some way. For readability, however, I’ll generalize. Here is the average career line for our historical cohort.

ATT RU YDS YPA RU TD REC REC YDS YPR REC TD SCR YDS
550 3334 6.1 33 56 552 9.4 4 3886

For good measure, our group compiled impressive final season stats as well.

GMS ATT RU YDS  YPA RU TD REC REC YDS YPR REC TD SCR YDS SCR YDS/G
12 247 1515 6.2 15 23 231 9.4 2 1746 142

As expected, they also exhibited strong athleticism. On average they stood 71 inches and weighed 216 pounds. Their average 40-yard dash time was 4.44 seconds, and their average broad jump was 122.5 inches.

These were good prospects. It’s not just me saying that, either. Spend some time Googling and you’ll find that these players were held in high regard. Oh, there were certain pundits that disliked one or another of them. But by and large, the football world fancied them.

To demonstrate that simply, I pulled two sets of pre-draft rankings from each year. One from CBS sports / NFL Draft Scout, which ranks rookie prospects from a “real football” point of view, and one from Rotoworld, which ranks rookies from a fantasy football perspective.

CBS POSITIONAL RANK ROTOWORLD POSITIONAL RANK CBS OVERALL RW OVERALL
2.1 2.6 21.3 3.2

Both CBS and Rotoworld thought our RBs were, on average, within the top-three at their position. For NFL draft purposes, CBS gave them an average overall rank of 21.3, well within the first round, and very close to their actual average NFL draft position (18.3). For the fantasy community, Rotoworld gave them an average overall ranking of 3.2, or roughly the third-best player, regardless of position, in their draft class.

The Rookie Drafts

There was broad consensus surrounding these players, in the form of pre-draft rankings and actual NFL draft position. And the dynasty community happily bought in.

OVERALL ROOKIE ADP RB POSITIONAL ADP
3 2.3

The fantasy community loved these guys as much as the NFL did. In rookie drafts, our RBs were off the board by the third pick of the first round on average. Seven were the first overall pick, and only two of the 18 lasted past the sixth overall selection. In short, the opinion of dynasty drafters mirrored that of NFL teams and the football community.

It’s easy to look back now and say we didn’t really like them, or that we suspected so-and-so wouldn’t pan out. But the proof is in the pudding, and these guys were taken in the top half of the first round in dynasty drafts.

This is an important point so I’ll stress it again. When it came time to vote with a currency that mattered (rookie draft picks), we essentially mirrored the NFLs valuation of these RBs. That makes a certain amount of sense. It’s reasonable to assume that a team spending a first-round pick on a player plans to give that player a lot of opportunities to succeed. But this hasn’t worked out so well for either the NFL or fantasy drafters.

The Production

So what did we get for investing premium early-first rookie picks into first-round NFL RBs? Not a lot of bang for the buck. In the short term, as rookies, they averaged a PPR positional finish of…RB39.2 Here’s a complete breakdown of rookie production.

FINISH N CUM
RB1 5 5
RB2 2 7
RB3 2 9
RB4 3 12
RB5+ 6 18

Half posted a useful season of RB3 or better, which is in keeping with the hit rate of other first round rookie picks. That’s fine if you’re satisfied with an RB3 performance from a top-three pick. Five posted an RB1 season, so it’s not like these are all wasted picks. Sometimes they hit right away. On the other hand, six finished off the fantasy radar entirely.

In the long term, this cohort of 18 RBs has played a total of 94 NFL seasons. Only 18 of them have been RB1 performances. That’s about a 19 percent rate. Even worse, one-third of those RB1 performances belong to Chris Johnson, meaning the other 17 players have produced just 12 RB1 seasons between them. It’s also worth noting that the backs who did produce an RB1 season did so on average in year 2.6, meaning there’s a good chance that when they broke through, they weren’t on their original fantasy team anymore.

Conclusions

Does this mean Fournette and McCaffrey are doomed to be fantasy disappointments? No. But the lessons of the past do suggest we take these arguments seriously:

  • Employ a structural drafting approach in startups and a Zero RB approach in rookie drafts generally.
  • Follow these 6 steps to building a perennial dynasty playoff team, including an emphasis on veterans and stars.
  • Strongly consider diversifying your selections if you play in multiple leagues, so as not to end up with too much exposure to Fournette or McCaffrey;
  • Consider trading out of your early picks. Early rookie picks are inherently valuable. Right now, the top three rookie picks range in value from 47 to 53 trade points (100 is the maximum). That puts you in spitting distance of Melvin Gordon (57 points), a first-round NFL RB with the bonus of an NFL track record and an established role. Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi, and LeSean McCoy are all worth somewhat less than 50 points, giving you the potential to flip your early rookie pick for one of them plus something else;
  • Move down. The ninth and tenth picks in rookie drafts have a combined trade value less than the third overall pick. That’s also where Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt are being taken. Neither has the prospect pedigree of Fournette or McCaffrey, but acquiring multiple later picks gives you more chances of hitting on an RB.

Data dump.

  1. Taken from the Dynasty ADP App, from August of each year.  (back)
  2. Hey, if you use the median, it jumps to RB36!  (back)
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