Is the 2018 rookie running back class being overvalued, or are they worth the price? Using the same framework from my look at the epic 2017 RB class, I evaluate how the 2018 class stacks up among the past six classes and look for draft targets and fades.
Not only does the 2018 RB class occupy an unprecedented eight of the top nine positions in dynasty rookie drafts, they’re also being drafted higher than ever in redraft leagues. With RB fever in full effect this drafting season, it’s important to determine whether this class is being over-hyped, or if they’re being properly valued with respect to past RB classes.1
Quantifying the quality of a prospect is a tricky thing, but fortunately, we have some tools at our disposal. The first is the NFL draft. Draft position correlates well to NFL success and is a good starting point for any analysis.2
As fantasy players though, we’re always looking beyond the draft to find the value that’s lurking beneath the surface. Enter RotoViz’s RB Prospect Lab. The Prospect Lab gives us a draft-agnostic method of comparing prospects’ athletic and production profiles to get a rough idea of how they project to the NFL.
By looking at draft classes through both the draft and the Prospect Lab we can get a clear picture of the relative strength of each year’s draft class. NFL draft position incorporates teams’ knowledge of factors that can’t be included in a statistical model, while the Prospect Lab can cut through the biases that are part of traditional scouting and highlight players that may be getting either overlooked or overvalued.
Since we’re looking at this in the context of fantasy, I took the top-20 RBs in positional ADP from each class.3 As you’ll see in the charts this also works out to a cutoff right around the end of the fourth round of rookie drafts.4
We’ll start with the NFL draft, looking at both the average draft position of the 20 prospects in the sample, as well as a visualization of the way players were distributed in each class:
2018 doesn’t quite beat the 2017 class on average, however by looking at the Log value of the draft picks, which is probably a more accurate representation of the draft capital teams spent to acquire players, we see it slightly edges out the 2017 class. The top eight RBs drafted in 2018 have a massive lead over recent years.
In 2018, the sixth RB drafted was Kerryon Johnson (pick 43), while the next closest was Duke Johnson (77) in the 2015 class, and the lowest was Kenneth Dixon (134) in the lackluster 2016 class. The eighth RB drafted, Royce Freeman (71), has a healthy lead over Matt Jones (95), the next closest RB taken, again from the 2015 class. 2018 stands out at the top of the draft, and does so by a wide margin.
Where the 2017 class does have the 2018 class beat though is in its depth throughout. For example, 18th pick Aaron Jones (182) was drafted far earlier than his 2018 counterpart, Justin Jackson (251), so finding later round values may be harder than last year, and in fact harder than it has been since 2015’s shallow class.
And now, let’s look at the Prospect Lab scores using the same visualizations we used for draft position:
The 2018 class includes Saquon Barkley (100 Prospect Lab score) who has the highest score ever in the Prospect Lab, but the second highest score, a tie between Derrius Guice (74) and Rashaad Penny (74), is worse than the second highest score in all but the poor 2014 class. Still, through the top eight scores the 2018 class trails only the 2017 class.
The lowest score in the class actually belongs to the fourth pick in rookie drafts, Sony Michel (19). Splitting a backfield with Nick Chubb (43) likely hurts the score for both backs here, but the same can be said for RBs from previous classes, such as Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine last year, and Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake in 2016.
Now that we’ve looked at both draft position and Prospect Lab score separately, let’s put them together. If we standardize the NFL draft position and Prospect Lab score for each player using z-scores, average each class, and then combine them, we get a ranking of where each class stands using both criteria:
2017 still comes out on top, but 2018 isn’t far behind, and is substantially better than other recent classes.
So now let’s answer the next logical question: “Does it matter?” If a stronger draft class doesn’t actually translate to fantasy success, then these results, while interesting, won’t really help us when deciding how to approach our rookie drafts. To test this, I averaged the yearly PPR points from the same 20 players used above and compared how they performed in each season they’ve played so far.
While acknowledging we’re working with a small sample here, the combined z-scores actually have been shockingly well-correlated to first year PPR scoring over the past five seasons.
The next step is to see if fantasy drafters recognize this by way of ADP. There are a lot of factors that go into rookie ADP. Perceived opportunity plays a huge role, and rightfully so. Overall ADP will also be affected by the relative strength of other positions. With this in mind, here’s how drafters have approached these RB draft classes:
It looks like the 2018 class may be slightly overvalued relative to the strong 2017 class in terms of the value of the draft capital being spent. As noted though, these drafts don’t exist in a vacuum, and the relative strengths of the wide receiver and tight end classes have a large influence at the top of drafts. D.J. Moore is the top WR being drafted this year, and he’s just barely ahead of Kerryon Johnson. In 2017, players like Corey Davis, Mike Williams, and O.J. Howard were all being selected earlier than the first non-RB in 2017.
Who To Target And Who To Fade
If you had the 1.01 this year, congratulations. Barkley is easily the best prospect of the past six years, and thus the pick has never been more valuable in the draft or in a trade.
Among the top eight RBs, only Chubb and Michel fall below the trendline. On draft position alone, they’d be fine, but their sub-par Lab scores hurt them here. For more context on what it means when two RBs cannibalize each other’s college production, be sure to read John Moore’s excellent analysis of RBs who share the same backfield. It should offer some hope that the Prospect Lab is simply undervaluing them due to factors it can’t account for. It’s not often two RB teammates are selected in the first 35 picks of the draft.5
While I’d be comfortable drafting either player somewhere in the top nine picks, there are still a few reasons that a player like Ronald Jones is more appealing, despite typically being drafted later than both. Neither Michel nor Chubb were early declares, and thus both finished their rookie years at age 22. We know draft age matters for RBs, and though Michel’s 7.9 YPC and 17 touchdowns in his senior year are eye-popping, players like Jones and Johnson both had more yards from scrimmage and more TDs in their final year, and did so despite being more than two full years younger than Michel.
In general, the top eight RBs in the class appear to be properly valued, and the same goes for Nyheim Hines and Kalen Ballage, who are on an island at the end of the second round. Cort Smith considers Hines one of his favorite targets and I tend to agree, as he enters a Colts backfield with plenty of opportunity up for grabs. He grades as a significantly better prospect than fellow rookie Jordan Wilkins, and was drafted by the current regime, unlike the incumbent Marlon Mack.
Players being selected in the fourth round of rookie drafts generally don’t have a great track record of success, but there are a few late targets with sleeper appeal. As is the case with many backs selected in this range, their landing spot is what suppresses their ADP.
Ito Smith and Chase Edmonds both landed in situations behind firmly entrenched starters where it’s unlikely they have little standalone value in 2018, however there is hope for next year.
While Devonta Freeman has a long-term deal in Atlanta, there’s a possibility that Tevin Coleman will leave in free agency, opening up a role for Smith in 2019. Smith looks like a second-round talent available at a fourth-round price, so any injury in front of him or change in his situation would pay immediate dividends.
It would be surprising if the Cardinals allowed David Johnson to leave in free agency. The franchise tag for RBs is still cheap enough that the Steelers had no reservations about using it two years in a row on Le’Veon Bell, so Arizona will have that as an option. Still, Edmonds grades out well here, and as we saw with the parade of mediocre RBs the Cardinals trotted out to replace Johnson when he got hurt last year, there isn’t much competition for the backup role on the team.
A final wild card is Jaylen Samuels. He’s tough to evaluate purely as an RB due to how he was used in college, but with the aforementioned Bell potentially departing at the end of the year, he makes for an interesting stash. James Conner may be Bell’s direct backup, but Samuels may be able to carve out a role with his versatility.
Rookie RBs frequently produce right away, and buying them in rookie drafts is often the cheapest way to get a workhorse for your team. 2018 is a very strong RB class at the top, and drafters shouldn’t hesitate to buy them at or near their current ADPs.
- Whether the position as a whole is overvalued is a separate, and important, question, but this will at least tell us if these specific RBs are being overdrafted compared to years’ past due to last year’s strong RB performances. (back)
- In large part because the army of professionals evaluating a player’s talent usually get it right, but also because teams are likely to provide opportunity to higher draft picks. (back)
- ADP was taken from May 1 to May 31, except in the case of 2014 where the draft didn’t take place until early May. The cutoff was set at 20 players to avoid diving too deep into undrafted free agents and because ADP data past this point begins to get a lot less robust. Across the six years of the study, 80 percent of the players past an ADP of 20 were UDFAs. A few players who snuck into the 19th or 20th slot due to only being picked a handful of times were removed from the sample. I’m looking at you Terron Beckham. (back)
- The end of the fourth round is an ADP of 48 and the average ADP of the 20th player in this analysis is 47.7 with a maximum of 51.0 and a minimum of 46. (back)
- Other players in their area of the chart include Eddie Lacy, Carlos Hyde, T.J. Yeldon, and Kenneth Dixon. There have been some successful seasons from that group, and it’s also a good reminder that early draft picks generally beget opportunity. (back)