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Rookie RBs Are Still the Key to Winning at Fantasy: Win Rates and Opportunity Costs – The Wrong Read, No. 58

Welcome to the 58th installment of The Wrong Read. Last offseason I wrote about the advantage that drafting a rookie running back in the proper range can give you. Few players outperform ADP-based expectations more frequently or to a greater degree than rookie RBs going in Rounds 9-12. Today we update our numbers with 2018 data and look at the issue from a slightly different angle.

Past installments of the Wrong Read have examined rookie RB outperformance in terms of actual fantasy points above ADP-implied points. How many points do certain players score above and beyond the number of points we should expect them to score given their ADP? But there are other ways to get at this question.

Using Player Win Rates to Inform Draft Strategy

One of the best is to look at historical win rates — or the percentage of times a player was on a league-winning roster in Fanball best ball leagues. Win rates are actually more predictable than you might think — you can get pretty close if you just know ADP and actual fantasy points. A lot more goes into a player’s win rate — such as when and how those points are scored — but even so, RB ADP and total points explain about 60% of the variance in same-season win rates.

The point is that by looking at win rates, we’re looking at essentially the same thing as actual fantasy points above ADP-implied points, only in a way that has a more direct impact on fantasy success. In other words, the same trends ought to hold.1

And they do. Rookie RBs again outperform their expected win rate in exactly the range of picks we identified above.

Over the last four years, rookie RBs enjoy above-average win rates from about pick 80 to pick 160, or from about Round 7 to Round 13.2 Although all RBs have above-average win rates in this range, rookie RBs easily outperform veteran RBs from about pick 110 to 160 — in other words, from Rounds 9 to 13.

Drafting RBs and Opportunity Costs

Astute readers will note that veteran RBs have above average win rates nearly across the board until you get to about Round 14. So why should we be picking rookie RBs in Rounds 9-12 when we could pick any veteran RB any time in the first 14 rounds and see above-average win rates? The problem is one of opportunity cost. Rookie RBs are most valuable in precisely the range in which wide receivers stop being a better value than RBs.

Indeed, when we look at this in terms of win rate, only at the very end of drafts do RBs become the most valuable position.

WRs or TEs sport higher win rates than RBs until the end of the eighth round, and by that time, quarterbacks are better values. In fact, if you went through your draft only trying to maximize win rate with each pick — that is, to pick a player at whatever position would yield the highest win rate, you wouldn’t pick an RB until after pick 200. The good news is that between pick 96 and pick 144 (Rounds 9-12), four picks need to be made, and you can’t spend them all on QBs.

What’s clear is that going after WRs in this range is the quickest way to set your team up for failure. Apart from early QBs (which are also disastrous), no other position besides WR has a below-average win rate prior to pick 150. Picking WRs early is imperative, which means that picking RBs in the middle rounds is also imperative, and no RBs perform better in this range than rookies.

What Does This Mean for 2019?

The 2019 RB class was rightly regarded as being relatively weak. No back in the class scored higher than a 60 in RB Prospect Lab. There are no Saquon Barkleys or Ezekiel Elliotts or even Leonard Fournettes in this class. Luckily that’s not the type of back we’re looking for here. When it comes to the type of rookie RB who can smash ADP and deliver fantasy championships, the 2019 class is secretly loaded.

According to ADP from the last two weeks, five different rookie RBs are currently being drafted in this broad range (Rounds 8-13, or picks 85-156)3 and two others are just on the outside looking in.

The 2019 Rookie RB Window Backs:

  • Damien Harris
  • Devin Singletary
  • Justice Hill
  • Tony Pollard
  • Darwin Thompson

The Borderline Cases

  • Darrell Henderson
  • Alexander Mattison4

Four of these seven RBs made the initial cut to be among Shawn Siegele’s top-15 Zero-RB candidates. There are many reasons Zero-RB and 1-Elite-RB strategies return great results year after year, and why they are in a great position to do so again. But one reason is that the RBs Zero-RB drafters target in the middle rounds consistently beat expectations. Given the apparent depth of the 2019 rookie RB class, conditions are in place for history to repeat itself.

Credit: Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire Pictured: Darwin Thompson

  1. It also means we can extrapolate best ball win rates into a redraft context without losing too much signal.  (back)
  2. Don’t pay too much attention to the left side of the graph. Only three rookie RBs in the last four years have ADPs inside the top 25 picks, and all of them have had win rates above 9%, led by Saquon Barkley’s 18.1% last season.  (back)
  3. I’m expanding the range when looking for targets to account for some margin of error.  (back)
  4. Mattison’s ADP from the last two weeks has him just outside our target range at pick 158, but as you can see from the chart, his ADP is trending upward and creeping into the rookie RB window.  (back)

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