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How to Avoid RB Land Mines: 9 Traits to Sidestep Early, Plus 10 Backs to Target

Zero RB quietly posted a 14% win rate in 2018. Meanwhile, RBs drafted in Rounds 3 and 4 won at absurdly low rates and the position accounted for the seven worst individual-player win rates of anyone drafted in the first four rounds. The simple solution is to just avoid drafting RBs in that area. But what if you don’t want the simple solution? If we remove all but the very best RB picks, wouldn’t those remaining options offer rocket ship upside?

RBs are structurally overvalued in fantasy leagues. We see this effect play out most clearly in Rounds 3 and 4 where the bust rate is excruciating, but first-round misses crush your title aspirations almost completely. Recent RotoViz research has demonstrated ways to avoid overvalued profiles, and we’ll discuss how to avoid some of those specific profiles as we look at the 2018 land mines.

The 7 Roster Killers of 2018

Le’Veon Bell (0.008% Win Rate) – Holdout

Bell’s refusal to play in 2018 didn’t make any sense. I certainly didn’t expect him to sit out the season, and I don’t blame others for thinking similarly. On the surface, it’s tempting to label this as a fluke and move on. On the other hand, RBs contain so much risk that any inkling of a red flag should be enough to push you off of an early-round option. (We’re currently seeing this with Todd Gurley, albeit for a different reason.)

In the current NFL atmosphere, teams are less inclined to sign RBs to big second contracts, heightening the risk that runners will use what little leverage they have in the attempt to force a deal.

Avoid: Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott

Elliott should never come off the board earlier than No. 4 overall, but even in that range it’s worth considering someone like David Johnson.

Devonta Freeman (0.019%) – Injury

Freeman scored only 14 points in 2018 after spending the offseason recovering from the sprained MCL and PCL that plagued him down the stretch in 2017. He didn’t look right early in 2018 and missed the season after knee and foot bruises were trumped by sports hernia surgery.

Jerick McKinnon (0.025%) – Injury

After his free agent deal with San Francisco made him a starter for the first time, McKinnon went down with an ACL injury before the season.

This is where we want to remind readers that RB1s suffer more, and more serious, injuries than other positions.

LeSean McCoy (0.026) – Old, bad offense

It’s difficult to play in 14 games and have a win rate at that ungodly level. Starting McCoy in the Buffalo offense was like driving a car with three missing tires only to realize the fourth one was flat.

Avoid: Mark Ingram

McCoy averaged more than 16 PPG in the year before his collapse. Ingram doesn’t have that many points to lose, and the Saints sidekick has never been at McCoy’s level.

Ingram has been a nominal starter before only to hemorrhage high-value touches to a more talented youngster. Joining a new offense, and one with shockingly low reEP numbers after Lamar Jackson’s ascension, introduces plenty of red flags to balance the upside.

David Johnson (0.028) – Offensive scheme change

Johnson averaged 15.5 PPG and yet posted a disastrous win rate. You need a first-round RB to be a fantasy god. Solid doesn’t cut it. Even an elite hybrid RB can underperform if the offense doesn’t score or suit his talents.1

Avoid: Le’Veon Bell

While Bell shouldn’t collapse in New York, it will be a challenge to live up to his lofty standards in a lesser offense. We know what the Steelers’ system did for James Conner last year, and we have Todd Gurley as another recent example of an uber-back whose production has been almost entirely defined by offensive scheme.2

Leonard Fournette (0.029) – Injuries, General Underperformance

Drafters are still eager to select a guy who averaged 3.3 yards per carry last year, remains a huge injury risk, and has to clear the air with management on a bi-monthly basis.

Avoid: Leonard Fournette

Fournette sports a crazy collegiate track record with fleeting moments of greatness at the NFL level. He would be an exciting Zero RB flyer if he were going in the Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones, or Miles Sanders range. After all, the breakout potential is there. Maybe Fournette is this year’s version of 2017 Gurley with Blake Bortles no longer at the helm.

Dalvin Cook (0.031) – Injuries, TDs

Cook wasn’t completely healthy to start the season, and that quickly led to re-injury and a remaining campaign at less than 100%. You need a superstar and a large discount to make it worth the trouble to buy any RB who enters training camp in the final stages of injury recovery.

Avoid: Todd Gurley, Sony Michel, Derrius Guice, Jerick McKinnon

Michel, Guice, and McKinnon are especially clear cut. The trio faces plenty of competition beyond the injury risk.

Third and Fourth Round Millstones (2018)

Those seven RBs finished with the lowest win rates of any players with top-48 ADPs, but they weren’t the only RBs who ruined rosters. Rounds 3 and 4 have been a running back graveyard in recent seasons.

Jordan Howard (0.036) ADP 25 – Lack of receiving profile

The RB1 position has become a haven for backs with a 50-50 run/receive profile. Howard never had a chance.

Avoid: Nick Chubb, Derrick Henry, Marlon Mack, Phillip Lindsay, Sony Michel, Chris Carson, Lamar Miller

All of these backs finished 2018 with at least 70% of their fantasy points coming in the running game. Some improvement is possible – perhaps especially with Lindsay, a smaller back with electric athleticism – but these backs are all being drafted at their healthy ceilings.

Kenyan Drake (0.074) ADP 35 – Small sample of NFL success 

Runners who aren’t established NFL stars have much narrower moats than other starters. They should be selected in the Zero RB range as players who might blow up but might not. Drake is an exaggerated example as someone who wasn’t even a lead back in college, but early-round RBs have enough risk without looking over their shoulders.

Avoid: James Conner, Damien Williams, Josh Jacobs, Kenyan Drake

The Steelers and Chiefs were forced into playing Conner and Williams last season, and they performed admirably enough to earn 2019 starting jobs. Unfortunately, both depth charts feature a palatable No. 2 and an intriguing late-round rookie.

Jacobs is probably a wide-moat player as the first RB taken in this year’s reality draft, but this is a quick reminder that Alabama committee backs have been mediocre-to-awful in the NFL, regardless of draft position. Drake’s ADP falls less than 10 slots despite another lost year.

Mark Ingram (0.056) ADP 38 – A suspended backup

Try not to draft either of those things in the first four rounds.

Avoid: Latavius Murray

Murray isn’t suspended, and his peripherals have often been superior to Ingram’s. But he is the first clear backup coming off the board. At No. 88 overall, he represents a 50-slot discount to Ingram’s 2018 price. There are still better selections.

Alex Collins (0.052) ADP 44 – Limited success/narrow moat

Collins is a player I like a lot, and I was excited to see him find success in Baltimore. This is still an instance where you can’t afford to buy early-season volume for a narrow moat player. Before making any selection, ask yourself: “If this player has a bad October, how likely is the team to try the backup?” If the answer is “very likely,” that RB is not a top-100 pick.

Avoid: Devonta Freeman, Marlon Mack, Phillip Lindsay, Chris Carson

In addition to the narrow-moat backs mentioned in the Drake section, we have to consider a few bigger names here. Freeman’s recent injury history wipes out his big seasons and returns him to prove-it status. Mack is a former fourth-round pick who barely hit 1,000 yards from scrimmage last year.3 There’s plenty of smoke in Denver as to whom the front office prefers, and it may not be the guy we all love.

Jay Ajayi (0.047) ADP 45 – Injury risk, large committee

Ajayi scored two touchdowns in Week 1 but was otherwise on the way to bust status even before his injury.

Avoid: Michel, Guice, McKinnon

The Big Picture – 2019 Draft Board

Last Friday, I published my pre-training camp look at every player I’m drafting in 2019 with 27 priority targets. Let’s look at the Avoid list and see how it compares for RBs selected in the first 80 picks.

PlayerADPPositional ADPRV PosRankDraftingAvoid
Saquon Barkley1.512Target
Christian McCaffrey2.221Target
Ezekiel Elliott334Avoid
Alvin Kamara3.643Target
David Johnson5.955x
Le'Veon Bell10.767Avoid
Melvin Gordon11.376Avoid
Joe Mixon12.8811
James Conner13.698Avoid
Dalvin Cook17.71012
Todd Gurley18.6119Avoid
Nick Chubb19.21213Avoid
Damien Williams21.91310xAvoid
Leonard Fournette27.71418Avoid
Aaron Jones291516
Marlon Mack29.11615Avoid
Derrick Henry32.21821Avoid
Kerryon Johnson32.21714x
Devonta Freeman33.91917Avoid
Josh Jacobs37.32019Avoid
Kenyan Drake45.32129Avoid
Sony Michel46.32222Avoid
Phillip Lindsay46.62320Avoid
David Montgomery47.32433
Mark Ingram48.22535Avoid
James White52.92624
Tarik Cohen54.22723x
Chris Carson572827Avoid
Rashaad Penny65.22928x
Tevin Coleman65.23025x
Darrell Henderson65.33132x
Derrius Guice69.73226Avoid
Lamar Miller76.13337Avoid
Latavius Murray78.13431Avoid

The RB targets from the Draft Board exercise are almost a perfect match with today’s activity. There were only two exceptions. Although I have few redraft shares so far, I’d still be willing to roster Damien Williams due to his extreme upside in the Chiefs offense. David Montgomery didn’t receive an Avoid, but he’s a tricky selection as a rookie third-rounder going seven slots earlier than teammate Tarik Cohen.

Using the Avoid List to Create Extreme RB Upside

The reasons to avoid specific RBs in 2019 are the same concerns that form the foundation for Zero RB. By avoiding these types of RBs, RotoViz users have been able to post above-average win rates since our debut in 2013.

Listing these players as Avoid isn’t a statement that every single one of them will fail. These are simply concerns related to risk, reward, and price. When we come across a position that has historically underperformed in a certain ADP range in both win rate and points,4 we want to be extremely picky. Instead of pouncing on minor values when a player slips a couple of spots, we want to focus only on those backs with explosive fantasy upside.

Round 1

If I have a pick in the first half of the draft, I’m looking at Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and David Johnson. If I have a pick in the second half of the round, I’ll usually grab one of the star receivers.

Round 2

The second stanza is WR nirvana in 2019, with former top-five picks going late into Round 2. However, if I want to diversify or am playing a slightly more RB-centric format, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon are strong possibilities. I recently argued that Mixon looks like the 2019 version of Melvin Gordon (2016), Todd Gurley (2017), and Christian McCaffrey (2018). Cook possesses traits that put him in a similar category.

Round 3

The options are limited in the third, but Aaron Jones is an option in the middle of the round and Kerryon Johnson often lasts toward the end. Cort Smith explains why Johnson is a screaming value, and having even seen him slip into Round 4 in a few Pros Vs Joes drafts, I couldn’t agree more.

Round 4

This is where narrow moat/low ceiling backs go to . . . die? No, that’s probably not it. But this is where they go to eventually kill your fantasy team. You should target a different position here, but if you have to have an RB, I don’t have an explicit Avoid tag on David Montgomery.

Two Studies To Read If You Want More Help With RB Selections

Modern Fantasy RB1s and RB2s Look Nothing Alike – Ryan Collinsworth’s excellent series on how RBs fit into the revolution in modern offenses will help you hit on backs with the most RB1 upside and avoid those more likely to slide down into the RB2 tier.

Mind the Gap: RBs to Target and Fade Based on ADP Disparity – When examining RB depth charts, the relative ADPs for runners on the same team offers a draft hack that allows you to select RBs with higher win rates. Cort Smith’s 2019 study helps you find the best elite RB1 options while also locating the top Zero RB candidates.

Want a preview of the best early-round foundation pieces for 2019? I look at the players you should stockpile in Rounds 3 through 5 in Don’t Be Daniel Snyder, Five Players to Win Your League, Not the OffseasonGrab a sneak peek at my potential 2019 Zero RB targets in Eight Breather Backs and How to Exploit Their Crazy ADPs.

Image Credit: Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: David Johnson.

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  1. You could obviously avoid Johnson again, as the Cardinals move to yet another offense. Perhaps I’m succumbing to True Believerism on Johnson, but Kliff Kingsbury’s newfangled chuck-and-duck promises Priest Holmes-level upside.  (back)
  2. On a positive note, Miami’s team RB numbers were solid under Adam Gase in 2018 and posted better returns in both ruEP and reEP than Bell’s 2017 Pittsburgh offense.  (back)
  3. Mack was one of our top sleeper selections as a rookie and has already produced excellent returns. I expect him to have a solid season, but that doesn’t mean I can simply ignore the concerns at this price.  (back)
  4. In this case, both raw points and points above replacement.  (back)

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