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Putting 2019 in Context: Is the Running Back Dead Zone Dead?

Last July, I wrote an article about the running back dead zone — basically, RBs picked in Rounds 3 through 6 have busted at incredible rates since 2015. That article — along with several others which had similar findings — fundamentally changed my strategy in best ball drafts.

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Leonard Fournette, Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram, and James White (just to name a few) did not get the memo that they were supposed to be bad. Rather, they decided to be very good.

 
Round 2015-18 Number of Players 2015-18 Average PPR Scoring 2015-18 Average Win Rate 2019 Number of Players 2019 Average PPR Scoring 2019 Average Win Rate
3 15 148.9 7.7% 6 181.9 8.5%
4 21 125.4 7.1% 4 207.2 8.7%
5 17 137.4 8.6% 6 185.6 7.6%
6 18 117.8 7.9% 3 63.3 6.0%
Combined 71 131.3 7.8% 19 169.7 7.8%

RBs in the so-called “dead zone” were not so dead in 2019, scoring an average of 169.7 points, 29.2% higher than the average from the previous four years. Rounds 3 and 4 were especially lucrative for runners, as both rounds sported an above-average win rate and absolutely gaudy PPR scoring numbers. This raises the question: Is the RB dead zone dead?

Why were these running backs so good in 2019?

A combination of three factors contributed to the performances we saw in 2019: Good health, more volume, and improved efficiency on said volume. When all three of those things happen for a player, chances are it’s going to be a great season for them.

In 2019, RBs with an ADP in Rounds 3 through 6 played an average of 12.3 games — 42.6% played all 15 games. From 2015 to 2018, RBs in that range played an average of 11.5 games, and just 33.8% played all 15 games. That explains some of what we saw last year, but the difference in production between the two groups was so big that there has to be more to it than good health. And there is.

From 2015-18, RBs drafted in this range averaged 10.9 expected points per game. In 2019, they averaged 12.3 expected points per game. They were more efficient too; this year’s group scored 1.05 actual points per expected point whereas the 2015-18 crew scored just 1.00.

Higher volume: Just variance or the beginning of a new normal?

The table below shows the year-by-year volume of the RBs whose ADPs fell in the dead zone. As you can see, the 2019 group was the most-involved of any in the last five seasons. However, the fact that there is no upward trend indicates that the abrupt spike this year was simply caused by variance. Furthermore, the 2019 value for expected points per game did not differ from the overall mean at a statistically significant level. One would think this sudden uptick is caused by modern NFL offenses utilizing their RBs as receivers more often, but these RBs’ carry-to-target ratio fell right in line with previous seasons.

 
Year Expected Points per Game
2015 11.0
2016 12.2
2017 11.8
2018 9.1
2019 12.3

It was fun to see so many of these mid-round RBs become workhorses in 2019, but it doesn’t appear to be the start of a new trend. Don’t expect the 2020 group to see usage like this.

Increased efficiency: Were these running backs lucky or good?

The table below depicts the year-by-year efficiency of RBs that fall in this range. Since there is no trend of these RBs becoming more efficient over the years, the uptick in efficiency this year can likely be chalked up to variance. Again, the 2019 value doesn’t differ from the mean at a statistically significant level. However, RB efficiency has been trending up league-wide – not just among those in Rounds 3-6 – over the last few years, so there is a chance this is what we can expect going forward.

 
Year Points per Expected Point
2015 0.99
2016 1.04
2017 0.96
2018 1.02
2019 1.05

This makes even more sense when you look at individual players instead of the collective. Aaron Jones had 19 touchdowns, and Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram both had 15. While there are definitely some guys who have been unlucky (looking at you, Leonard Fournette), there are more who have been on the right side of variance this season.

Putting the 2019 season in context

When you consolidate all of the information in one table as shown below, it becomes clear just how special 2019 was for the RBs who were drafted in Rounds 3-6. They hit a five-year high in both expected points and points per expected point and played the second-most games of any group in our sample.

 
Year Games Expected Points Points per Expected Point
2015 12.4 132.5 0.99
2016 10.6 132.9 1.04
2017 12.1 152.5 0.96
2018 10.8 112.0 1.02
2019 12.3 162.3 1.05

For the most part, everything that could go right did go right for the dead zone RBs this year. Well, except for one thing.

If the stars aligned like this, why was the average win rate so low?

The average win rate for RBs drafted in Rounds 3 through 6 this year was 7.8%. I’ve spent the last few paragraphs talking about how everything went right for these RBs to score so many points this year, so how did they still have a below-average win rate despite such high point totals? Even the average win rate for Rounds 3 and 4 — a range which sported four 240-point scorers and had 70% of its RBs score at least 160 PPR points — is only slightly above-average. How is this possible?

We’ll talk about that and more in Part 2, which will focus on the wide receivers in this range and examine how their 2019 production compared to years past. We’ll also compare the positions and discuss how you should leverage this information to help you in 2020 drafts. Stay tuned.

Image Credit: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Derrick Henry.

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