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Modern Fantasy RB1s and RB2s Look Nothing Alike: Redraft Strategy for the Passing Revolution, Part 3

Welcome to my NFL Passing Revolution series, where I examine how the NFL’s shift towards efficient pass-heavy offenses has affected the landscape of fantasy football.

In Part 2 of this series, I investigated how fantasy RB1s have changed over the last 17 years — most notably over the last two. Beginning in 2017, we observed an unprecedented improvement in receiving production that has re-defined the fantasy RB1 archetype.

In this installment, I’ll be examining fantasy RB2s and RB3s using a similar methodology to my previous article. My research shows that RB1s and RB2s don’t just differ in the magnitude of their production; they also differ in terms of their on-field usage. Because of this, public consensus RB3s may actually offer greater boom-or-bust-style upside in seasonal redraft leagues.

Be sure to check out the previous installments:

The New Fantasy RB2 Archetype

Whereas RB1s have substantially increased their receiving production over the last two years, RB2s are heading the other direction. RB2 PPR (Rec.) percentage has declined for four straight seasons.

In 2018, fantasy RB2s amassed the highest PPR rushing total and lowest PPR receiving total since 2009. 68.1% of their PPR production came from rushing statistics, which stands in stark contrast to RB1s’ near 50-50 split. As you can see in the graph below, RB1 and RB2 PPR (Rec.) share percentage more-or-less tracked together for about 13 seasons. But, over the last two to three years, they have diverged wildly:

We used to believe that fantasy RB1s were players with enormous rushing workloads while fantasy RB2s held a bit more receiving upside. Now, that paradigm has been flipped on its head. Players like Derrick Henry and Lamar Miller exemplify the new fantasy RB2 paradigm: Running backs that receive hefty rushing workloads but have limited receiving upside. This PPR points distribution likely places them squarely in the RB2 tier for the foreseeable future.

The other big takeaway from the RB2 dataset is that fantasy RB1s have actually increased their relative value despite a decline in total production. Fantasy RB2s’ total PPR scoring has dropped 18.3% since 2002, which is nearly twice the rate of decline (9.7%) for RB1s. And once again, the point of separation here appears to be receiving acumen: RB2 PPR (Rec.) scoring has dropped 31.5% while RB1 PPR receiving scoring has increased 24.7%.

Potential RB2s for 2019

Now, let’s take a look at running backs who project as 2019 fantasy RB2s based on their high rushing usage and limited receiving production last season. The following players would require a significant change in 2019 receiving workload to compete for RB1 status based on our historical trend:

There are question marks for a lot of these players, which I’ll review in bullet-point format:

  • Aaron Jones – Will Green Bay finally unleash him, or will they insist on a committee with Jamaal Williams?
  • Derrick Henry – Can we overlook how underwhelming he was from Weeks 1 to 13 last season? Or will the Titans finally give him 20+ touches per game in 2019?
  • Phillip Lindsay – Was last season a fluke or signs of things to come? Will Royce Freeman make a second-year leap?
  • Sony Michel – What in the world do we make of a Patriots backfield with Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and rookie Damien Harris?
  • Lamar Miller – How many years does this guy have left as a workhorse back? Is D’Onta Foreman finally ready to be a factor after recovering from his Achilles injury?
  • Jordan Howard – Can he out-compete rookie Miles Sanders, or will Sanders usurp him in short order?
  • Peyton Barber – Surely Ronald Jones can figure it out this year … right?

The point is: this list is full of uncertainties. So, let’s focus on two players that may offer legit upside from this list: Mark Ingram and Latavius Murray.

Mark Ingram

Baltimore paid Ingram for a reason. The Ravens are fully committed to Lamar Jackson and their run-heavy offensive system, and they needed a great running back to flank Jackson. Alex Collins wasn’t the guy, Javorius Allen disappeared from the offense, and Gus Edwards did well in a pinch but didn’t have elite natural talent.

Enter Ingram. He now walks into a full lead-back role for the first time in three years in the most run-heavy offense in the NFL with limited competition for snaps. On top of that, defenses will be uber-concerned about corralling Jackson, thereby opening up more efficient opportunities for Ingram. On top of that, he’s a better receiving option than any other back on their roster, which should keep him on the field for as long as he has the stamina.

Latavius Murray

Then there’s Murray, who now takes over the job Ingram left behind in New Orleans. Sean Payton has a long history of using two backs in his offense, from Ingram to Tim Hightower, C.J. Spiller and Pierre Thomas. Murray should excel in the same role. At RB36 running back off the board, he offers RB2 upside in a high-scoring offense. And if, God forbid, Alvin Kamara were to suffer injury, his upside would be enormous.

RB2s Deserving Fade Consideration Based on ADP

Running backs with high rushing volume but poor receiving upside may have a hard time attaining PPR RB1 status, which limits their redraft upside. Then again, perhaps you’re not looking for upside in Rounds 3 to 6. Instead, maybe you want the high fantasy floor that rushing volume affords. If that’s the case, then just make sure you’re not paying an exorbitant draft capital premium for that floor. Accept RB2 value if it falls to you, but don’t make the mistake of projecting an RB1-style breakout from these high rushing volume players.

For example, why draft Sony Michel at RB22 when you could grab Chris Carson at RB28? Better yet, why take either of them when Tarik Cohen (RB26) and James White (RB27) offer receiving upside that those other players don’t?

Based on that logic, I advise fading Aaron Jones (RB16), Marlon Mack (RB18) and Derrick Henry (RB20). Some fantasy drafters are hoping for RB1 upside from these three players, but none of them boasts historical receiving usage to justify that RB1 upside. If you’re banking on major play-calling changes in their respective offenses, then go for it: Shoot your shot. But just know that their statistical track records do not necessarily hint at RB1 potential.

So, let me provide a quick arbitrage-style run-down of potential RB2s to target — and those to fade — based on our historical trend:

  • Kerryon Johnson (RB19) over Aaron Jones (RB16)
  • Mark Ingram (RB23) over Marlon Mack (RB18)
  • Kenyan Drake (RB25) over Derrick Henry (RB20)
  • Tarik Cohen (RB26) over Phillip Lindsay (RB21)
  • James White (RB27) over Sony Michel (RB22)
  • Latavius Murray (RB36) over Lamar Miller (RB32)

How to Target Fantasy RB3s

Now, let’s shift gears and focus on fantasy RB3s.

Over the past two seasons, RB1s such as Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey and Kamara have revolutionized the fantasy running back paradigm by offering WR-level receiving value and elite rushing volume. Their level of receiving acumen may only be rivaled by the likes of Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson in years past.

The development of these elite three-down backs has thrust them into a tier of their own, wherein receiving acumen is prerequisite for elite fantasy status. But, then again, not every good receiving back is predestined for RB1 status. There exists another group of running backs – that typically occupies the fantasy RB3 tier – that boast similarly excellent receiving upside but limited usage in their respective offenses.

Fantasy RB3s Can Turn Into League-Winners

In principle, fantasy RB3 receiving production1 offers RB1-style upside if they inherit greater opportunity. Damien Williams and Jaylen Samuels are both excellent examples from last season when they replaced Kareem Hunt and James Conner, respectively. Dion Lewis and Tevin Coleman are two more great examples from 2017. These kinds of players produce schematically like an RB1 but do not typically earn RB1-style rushing usage. Accordingly, players like this typically make excellent waiver or handcuff options when their team’s lead back suffers injury.

Sure, any running back who inherits a significant rushing workload will see a statistical improvement as a result. But, for a running back to ascend to fantasy PPR RB1 status, he typically must possess a legit receiving skillset to accompany that increased rushing workload. This second qualifying factor is what limited players like Gus Edwards and Jeff Wilson last season.

As we examined in the previous section, modern RB2s don’t necessarily offer the kind of receiving upside necessary for RB1 status. Moreover, most fantasy RB2s are already their team’s lead back, which limits their ability to “break out” via increased workload. Instead, strangely enough, it’s RB3s who best fit this fantasy breakout mold.

As you can see in the chart above, RB3 data looks uncannily similar to RB1s’ in terms of fantasy points distribution (nearly a 50-50 split between rushing and receiving) and general trends over time. The difference, of course, is magnitude. While RB1s’ and RB3s’ data appear similar schematically, RB1s are almost twice as productive. Nonetheless, this schematic similarity imbues RB3s with the kind of fantasy upside we want to target in the later rounds of the draft.

Potential RB3s for 2019

Here is a shortlist of potential fantasy RB3s – with similar PPR-point distribution to previous breakout examples – who could inherit huge opportunity depending on the health of their team’s backfield:

The public is pretty low on the players in the above chart. But, players like these offer RB1 upside if the cards fall in their favor. And, even if the cards fall against them, they can still provide a consistent RB3 floor with minimal draft capital investment.

Sure, some of the players in that list are more like insurance policies (Chase Edmonds, Elijah McGuire, etc.). But, others have a reasonable chance of maintaining RB3-level production throughout the season (Tevin Coleman, Dion Lewis, Ito Smith, etc.).

Hoarding players like these affords you roster flexibility, a hedge against injury risk and league-winning upside. Plus, it also grants you leverage over other fantasy teams when their “locked-in” RB1 suffers injury – and you have the guy next in line for carries. In the mid-to-late rounds of your draft, target as many of these receiving backs as you can roster.

What to Expect in Part 4

In this series’ next installment, I’ll highlight incoming rookie running backs that may offer fantasy dynasty value based on their college receiving stats. As we’ve observed in the past two articles, receiving aptitude is critical to fantasy success in the modern era. So, which rookies possess the kind of receiving upside to make a fantasy impact in 2019 and beyond?

Image Credit: Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Aaron Jones.

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  1. 46.1% PPR (Rec.) scoring in 2018  (back)
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