Don't avoid RBs in Round 1

Why the RB1 disaster from 2013 isn't likely to repeat

Updated: June 19, 2014, 3:06 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN The Magazine

LET'S FACE IT, 2013 was a gruesome year for first-round running backs. Arian Foster, Ray Rice, Doug Martin, C.J. Spiller and Trent Richardson were consensus top-10 picks, and by any measure, each was a disaster. Yes, if you were fortunate enough to draft Jamaal Charles or our cover boy, LeSean McCoy, your season worked out fine. But odds are that if you used your first-rounder on a back last season, you were unimpressed. That opens a whole bag of questions: Why would a right-thinking fantasy football owner do it again in 2014? Isn't the strategy of selecting RBs very early in your draft a product of the "old" NFL? Haven't we recently seen players at other positions -- like Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson and Jimmy Graham -- shatter records? Don't we need a new fantasy paradigm to match the new NFL? No, no, no and no.

I don't deal in absolutes. I will never argue that you must take a back with your first pick, no matter who he is. There is a point where I think drafting a seemingly reliable wideout or quarterback is probably smarter than grabbing, say, the No. 11 running back. But with my first pick, I'm leaning toward the ball carrier. To explain why, I'll address the three most typical objections to the RB-first strategy.

Objection No. 1: You dope, it's a passing league!
You're right. It is. Over the past two seasons, 12 QBs have attempted 600-plus passes in a single campaign. In the entire previous decade, that happened only 13 times. Last year 16 signal-callers -- half the league -- exceeded 500 attempts. In 2010, that number was nine. And in 1992, Dan Marino was the only QB over 500. The 18,136 leaguewide passing attempts in 2013 were the most ever.

This explains why, in terms of raw fantasy point totals, QBs have so thoroughly dominated the past two seasons. In that span, 31 QBs have posted top-20 fantasy seasons, compared with nine running backs. Only one RB -- Jamaal Charles -- has finished higher than seventh. So if raw point totals were all we cared about, you'd be dumb to draft anything other than a QB in your draft's first round.

But smart fantasy owners care much more about scarcity. If high-volume, top-performing fantasy QBs are everywhere, why value them? Last year, No. 3 QB Cam Newton and No. 12 QB Ben Roethlisberger were separated by 5.3 fantasy points per game. On average, Newton was drafted 31st overall, while Big Ben went 101st. Heck, a top performer like Philip Rivers was barely drafted in 10-team leagues. Unless you owned Peyton Manning, it didn't really matter all that much which QB you drafted, and even if you were disappointed with a Brady or a Matt Ryan, in most leagues replacement possibilities were plentiful.

By comparison, No. 3 running back Matt Forte and No. 13 RB Frank Gore were 5.3 points per game apart. And the top running backs are much harder to replace. That's because while most fantasy teams own one or two QBs, they load up on five or six RBs. They handcuff their studs and take fliers on possible future stars. So when Reggie Bush gets hurt, Joique Bell is already owned in most leagues, and therefore Bush's fantasy owners must dive much deeper into the talent pool for reinforcements. It only stands to reason: If there are only a few "sure thing" running backs and plenty of vaguely equal QBs, wise strategy says lean toward the RBs.

LeSean McCoyPeter Yang

Objection No. 2: Scarcity is great in theory, but you must consider reliability too!
As I've mentioned, 2013 wasn't a good look for the highest-drafted running backs. In 12-team leagues, a full half of the 10 first-round RBs either got hurt (Foster, Martin, Spiller) or mysteriously forgot how to run with the football (Rice, Richardson). So sure, hypothetically it makes sense to draft the scarcest position early, but if first-round RBs are a virtual flip of the coin, shouldn't we invest instead in the safest QB, wide receiver or tight end with loads of upside?

Yes, but only if someone proves that it's typical for so many first-round RBs to flame out at the same time. Then I'd be willing to trade off some upside for security. But you know what? Last season wasn't typical -- at all.

In order to prove how funky 2013 was, let me reintroduce the notion of value-based drafting. As developed by FootballGuys.com, VBD compares fantasy performances at different positions. It measures each player's raw points relative to the baseline player at his position. (Each position's baseline is determined by counting how many players at that position are typically drafted in the first 10 rounds.) VBD points are ranked, and voilà: We have a way of assessing where each player should have been drafted.

As you can see in Chart A, while Charles, McCoy, Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson justified being selected in the first round, and while Alfred Morris at least submitted third-round value, the five other highest-drafted running backs delivered nothing but disappointment.

This is some serious failure. I'm not blaming the players; part of the argument against an early RB is that the position is hazardous to a man's health, and many more running backs than quarterbacks or wide receivers get hurt in a given season. The fact is, though, that until last year, the elite ball carriers had mostly avoided such soul-crushing, injury-marred, terrible seasons. Don't believe me? I've got Chart B to prove it.

As you can see, it's not all that uncommon for running backs selected in the first dozen picks of your fantasy draft to finish outside the top 12 in terms of VBD. And that would be all the more fodder for folks who think taking RBs early is stupid. Except look at that last column. It's all but unprecedented to see so many first-round RBs giving you nothing. In the average season, one or zero of those backs failed to deliver even fifth-round value.

Still, I understand why folks feel burned. So I performed the same analysis over the past six seasons for QBs and wide receivers to see historically how often those positions have crushed fantasy owners.

I challenge you to look at Chart C and Chart D and contend that it's safer to take a quarterback or wide receiver in the first round of your draft. In the past six seasons, 13 QBs went in the top 12, and only two of them justified that selection. Meanwhile, three of them crashed. In the same span, 11 wide receivers went in the top 12, and only one of them justified it (Andre Johnson in 2009), while three crashed. In case you're still dubious, I crunched all of the numbers in Chart E.

So remind me again: Which position has the most risk?

Objection No. 3: Stop worrying! I can just find a great running back in the second round!
Sometimes that's true. In 2013, for instance, Matt Forte, Eddie Lacy, DeMarco Murray and Chris Johnson were drafted in the 11-through-20 range of RBs and delivered top-10 seasons. If you were wise enough to draft Calvin Johnson instead of, say, C.J. Spiller and then take Forte or Murray in the second round, you did a nice job. But here are a few other names drafted in that 11-through-20 range who may have tempted you: Stevan Ridley, Maurice Jones-Drew, David Wilson and Darren McFadden. Blech! If you got stuck with any of those guys as your top RB, it probably was a long season, even if you did have Megatron.

Indeed, the data says that assuming a second-round RB will make up for failing to get a first-rounder tends not to work. Take a peek at Chart F to see how backs selected from 13th to 24th overall have performed.

And you know what else skews our perspective on the value of early-round RBs? Every year some random-seeming rusher goes undrafted in most leagues, becomes a harmless-seeming early-season waiver add, transmogrifies into a fantasy stud and convinces us that the position is overrated and random. In 2013, it was Knowshon Moreno. In 2012, it was Alfred Morris. In 2011, it was Darren Sproles. And so on. If you were lucky enough to fall into these unexpected stars, any mistakes you might've made with your early picks didn't matter so much. But is that really a strategy? Hoping that the thunderbolt strikes you between the eyes and you luck into the one game-changing RB nobody saw coming? Personally, I prefer to play it smart and plan.

Conclusions
As I noted, there are no set-in-stone rules about which position you must draft in the first round. Still, I think the most valuable thing we can take away from this history lesson is the notion that we shouldn't overreact to a single year. If taking a running back early was the correct strategy entering 2013, it's no less correct this season.

In standard-scoring leagues, there are four rushers who should be off the board before you consider anyone else. You can order them however you like: Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte. I think you're doing your fantasy squad a disservice if you bypass these backs in favor of the top player at another position. The data above makes this self-evident. Personally, I'd also add Marshawn Lynch and Eddie Lacy to the mix. I wouldn't consider a QB or wide receiver (or Jimmy Graham) ahead of any of the six top running backs still on the board. One of them could bust, but history tells us it's unlikely that more than one will.

After that, would I consider drafting Manning or Megatron? That's a reasonable question, though the data from the past six seasons tells me those non-running backs will likely be overvalued in 2014. I still might take Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Zac Stacy before I'd go elsewhere, and I could even add Foster to that list.

So running backs no longer fetch the largest raw point totals. But the scarcity of elite RBs is real, and despite the carnage of 2013, you should still target rushers in your first round. They're not safe. But they feature a better combination of safety and upside than any other first-round option.

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