Risks, rewards of drafting rookie RBs

Updated: August 27, 2014, 1:49 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

If, looking at this year's crop, you find yourself less than impressed with the rookie running back class, you're not alone: NFL teams seem to agree with you.

This May's NFL draft was only the third in history during which no running back was selected in the first round; 1963 and 2013 were the other two. In addition, the first running back selected, Bishop Sankey, was taken 54th overall (22nd pick of the second round); that is the latest such pick in draft history. To put that into perspective, there have been at least two running backs selected before the 54th overall pick in every draft in history except one: 1984, the year during which the NFL had both a college player draft and a special supplemental draft for USFL players.

Sankey is the only rookie projected to start for his NFL team, and the only rookie being currently selected among the top 30 in ESPN live drafts; and he's being selected, on average, exactly 30th. So, in fantasy terms, this freshman rookie running back class has hardly excited. If the average draft position holds, in fact, it'd represent only the second time in the nine years that just one rookie cracked the top 30 at the position in ADP, and Sankey's No. 30 ADP would be the lowest by the No. 1 rookie running back during that span (Knowshon Moreno was 29th, and the only top-30 rookie running back, in 2009). Conversely, five rookies had top-20 running back ADPs from 2006-13.

But does perception make it right?

History shows that rookie running backs can make an impact: Twenty-five freshmen finished among the top 20 at the position in fantasy points in the past 14 seasons (2000-13) alone. And, since the merger, the only seasons during which there wasn't a rookie running back ranked among the top 20 in fantasy points were 2011 (DeMarco Murray finished 29th to lead that year's freshman class), 2010 (LeGarrette Blount and Jahvid Best finished 23rd), 2004 (Kevin Jones finished 21st) and 1992 (Rodney Culver finished 22nd) and 1991 (Leonard Russell finished 24th). Comparatively, only four rookie quarterbacks managed a top-10 finish, eight rookie wide receivers a top-20 finish, and five rookie tight ends a top-10 finish, at their positions in terms of fantasy points since 2000.

As expected -- as it is a well-circulated belief among veteran fantasy owners -- when selecting rookies, look to the running backs.

The challenges, however, are evaluating the relative talent level of each incoming class, as well as determining which from said class are worth your draft pick. To the latter point, the top five rookie running backs in terms of 2013 ADP, Eddie Lacy (19th), Montee Ball (24th), Giovani Bernard (29th), Le'Veon Bell (36th) and Christine Michael (50th) finished sixth, 42nd, 18th, 14th and 112nd in terms of fantasy points. Meanwhile, the top five in terms of fantasy points, Lacy (sixth), Bell (14th), Zac Stacy (17th), Bernard (18th) and Andre Ellington (24th) were selected 19th, 24th, undrafted, 29th and undrafted. There's much variation in those results.

Rookies: Draft role?

[+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
AP Photo/John BazemoreBishop Sankey was the first running back drafted this year, but it wasn't until the second round.

Sankey falls squarely in this class, as Lacy and Bell did a year ago. It makes sense in fantasy to draft roles -- you cannot score points if you don't get the football -- but history doesn't assure Sankey a seamless transition to the NFL.

Fourteen times since 1960 an NFL team had a running back score 160 or more fantasy points one year, had that player leave for another team at season's end, then selected a running back within the first 64 picks of the subsequent NFL draft. The Tennessee Titans made Sankey the 15th such player in 2014; Chris Johnson scored 189 fantasy points for the 2013 Titans, only to be released by the team at year's end and subsequently signed by the New York Jets.

The results of this group, as you can see, were checkered. For instance, 1999 No. 4 overall pick Edgerrin James, drafted to replace Marshall Faulk, had an extraordinary rookie season, but 1998 No. 5 overall pick Curtis Enis fell flat on his face after being tabbed to replace Raymont Harris. Granted the chart below represents a small sample, but it's compelling historical evidence nevertheless that the opportunity presented to Sankey is not only rare, it's no guarantee of success.

Expanding the scope of the study grants Sankey no greater historical support: The 58 such instances using an 80-fantasy-point minimum for the departing player resulted in a mere 7.8 fantasy points per game average among the rookie replacements; the 14 in the study above averaged 8.5 points per game. To give you some context on those numbers, 21 running backs averaged at least 8.5 fantasy points per game in 2014 (10-game minimum), while 23 averaged at least 7.8. It doesn't matter who was being replaced; it's that rookies in general don't always immediately adapt to life in the NFL even when granted an instantaneous opportunity to start.

Rookies: Draft skill?

The remainder of the rookie class falls squarely into this class, as players who will begin the season as projected backups but who many believe have the talent to start.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezCarlos Hyde still has Frank Gore ahead of him on the 49ers' depth chart.

Most notably, Carlos Hyde, Jerick McKinnon, Dri Archer, Ka'Deem Carey, De'Anthony Thomas and Lache Seastrunk were all selected among the top 200 picks overall in the NFL draft by teams that brought back a 160-plus-point fantasy running back from 2013. For this part of the study, however, let's examine Hyde: He's the one 2014 draftee from the first two rounds to play for a team that retained a 160-plus-point running back (Frank Gore), making him the 98th such player since 1960.

The previous 97 rookies to be drafted into clear backup situations, unfortunately, averaged 3.5 fantasy points per game, or less than half the amount from the "role" group. That's not to say that there weren't fantasy standouts in this group: Adrian Peterson managed 222 fantasy points in 2007 (Chester Taylor was the incumbent), Jerome Bettis 195 in 1993 (Cleveland Gary), Earl Cooper 169 in 1980 (Paul Hofer), Curtis Dickey 169 in 1980 (Joe Washington), Cadillac Williams 148 in 2005 (Michael Pittman), Antowain Smith 133 in 1987 (Thurman Thomas) and Reggie Brooks 125 in 1993 (Earnest Byner). Five others, meanwhile, managed to crack the century mark, including active running backs Steven Jackson and LeSean McCoy. Only 16 rookie running backs in total, or 16 percent of the study, managed even 80 fantasy points. Forty-three percent of the role-based rookies, comparatively, scored 80-plus (though, again, the sample sizes are hardly equal).

In other words, you've got a chance at succeeding with such a pick of a rookie backup, but your odds are probably not as good as you think. Bear in mind that 52 running backs (10-game minimum) averaged at least 3.5 fantasy points per game in 2013. There's a reason that most of these players, in redraft leagues at least, are tabbed as handcuffs rather than integral pieces on a fantasy roster.

Hyde, however, is the backup from this bunch who makes the most sense as a speculative backup selection. After all, he's the one playing behind a 31-year-old running back, and the skill group did exhibit greater results when drafted behind a running back whose 30th birthday had already passed: The 12 historical examples who did it averaged 4.7 fantasy points per game, with Williams and Smith among them.

Brighter futures?

For those in dynasty leagues, it might not be the rookie season but rather future years that pique your curiosity. Strangely, it's again the role group that garners the advantage in Year No. 2: The 14 running backs from that study averaged 10.0 fantasy points per game as sophomores, 11 of the 14 of them finishing with a better point total than during their rookie years, and the group enjoying an overall 18 percent increase in fantasy production.

Whether you believe in Sankey's skills or not, that suggests that opportunity has plenty to say about a running back's future, meaning you shouldn't be too quick to write off his future even if Hyde was largely regarded the better prospect entering the draft. Perhaps the promise of an immediate role does help further a running back's future.

But history offers no such knock on Hyde: The skill group averaged 6.0 fantasy points per game as sophomores, less than the role group yet still one that saw 62 of 97 improve in total fantasy points and the group as a whole enjoyed a 69 percent increase in production. And, whittling that group down again to those drafted behind 30-plus-year-old running backs -- again, Hyde is squarely in that group -- the 12 historical players to do it averaged 9.6 fantasy points per game as sophomores, or nearly the same average that those in the role group did.

So, even if Sankey enjoys a substantial advantage over Hyde in terms of immediate fantasy success, the case can easily be made that Hyde is comparably valuable -- if not more so -- as far as future years are concerned.

As far as the rest of the rookie class?

Well, that's the primary reason that no other rookie (besides Sankey and Hyde) is being selected among the top 45 at the position, and history supports those ADPs. Frankly, considering their lower draft selections as well as their current team circumstances, Sankey and Hyde are probably being drafted appropriately.

It seems the NFL sent its message about its opinion regarding rookie running backs with its slow-to-select-them strategy during May's college draft; fantasy owners should, heeding history, follow suit.

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