Early MFL10 drafts – that is, $10-entry best-ball leagues hosted by MyFantasyLeague.com – can be, quite frankly, an excellent way to turn your year-round dedication to fantasy football into a few league wins.
They can also be daunting – drafting this early, of course, is to an extent done blindly. These concerns seem magnified at running back, where numerous NFL backfields suffer from a serious lack of clarity in April. After all, we’re pre-draft at this point. Surprising draft or free agency acquisitions, head-scratching coaching preferences, and camp injuries soil even the best-laid early draft plans. But the MFL10 owner who does his/her homework can leverage it into a real advantage over those drafting on gut feeling or incomplete information. And at that point, you’re at least theoretically far more likely to compile an early-drafted roster with staying power, or at least more immunity to summer pratfalls.
To make sense of these offseason messes, it’s often helpful to take a closer look at the Average Draft Positions (ADPs) of your options. That way, you’re identifying not only the most attractive selections, but also their ideal draft slots.
First, a couple of strategy notes:
- Typically, I roster no more than five running backs, and some of my MFL10s carry only four. I consider five the optimal number because it allows you to structure your running back corps as follows:
RB1 - a stud upon whom you rely deeply for across-the-board production (think Le'Veon Bell or Eddie Lacy)
RB2, RB3 - undervalued semi-studs with RB1/RB2 upside (think Jonathan Stewart, Justin Forsett, or Carlos Hyde)
RB4 - a promising back with one ultra-useful skill (think Theo Riddick) or relatively few obstacles to major playing time (think Jerick McKinnon)
RB5 - a lottery ticket; a dirt-cheap (14th round or later) flier on a guy who fits the profile for fantasy relevance (think Lorenzo Taliaferro or Khiry Robinson)
For me, a chief fantasy goal is to get something for nothing, i.e. a useful fantasy asset in a middle or late round. By drafting just four backs, you're not allowing yourself many dogs in that fight; chances are, you'll be paying full price for every running back point you tally. Yes, the late-round sleepers who become RB2s or better are very few and far between, but I'd much rather set aside one educated stab among my roster of 20 men.
Four backs has been the prevalent structure for MFL10 winners of late. This is because, generally speaking, the winning MFL10ers (a) lock down a slam dunk runner in the first two rounds, thus securing solid or better production from the position; and/or (b) choose just the right combinations elsewhere to compensate for mediocre rushing numbers, a risky proposition that depends on a mix of luck and perfect projections on your part. Frankly, while learning from the winners is smart business, I don't find it wise to chase the absolute cream of the crop. Most of last season's winners became them with a lot of things going their way at just the right times, which we can't prepare for, especially not in April. Since the absolute top of the heap is a pretty lucky and incidental place, I'd rather chase success by aiming near the top, a level I know I can attain. In other words, I'm not shy about snagging a fifth back.
- You won't find me calling many rookies "undervalued." Sure, there are guys I like later down the road - guys I think project well into the NFL and show the ability By this, I typically mean particularly athletic backs who caught the ball well in school. I'm targeting the likes of David Johnson and Ameer Abdullah in the double-digit rounds, but you won't see me spending a 3rd-to-5th to roll the dice on Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, or any other "name" rookie before they even have a team. Go too early on rookies, and you increase your chances of trotting out time-share (or sheer backup) running backs, thus decreasing your chances of fielding a well-rounded corps and making up for any other early-round busts.. I'm all for aggressive drafting, but April MFL10s don't offer the smart money on completely unknown commodities.
Let’s take a look at the RB1, RB2, and RB3 tiers by current MFL10 ADPs via RotoViz's Best Ball ADP app, paying close attention to backs with seemingly disproportionate value to their common draft ranges.
I can’t justify spending this pick on Charles. A 1.04 pick of Charles banks on a late-20s back compiling huge production despite dwindling usage and production. In 2014, he saw his rushing, receiving, and red zone shares in the offense decrease drastically. His usage lagged markedly behind that of much of this tier – especially in the red zone, where fantasy hay is made and Charles is often treated with kid gloves. The dazzlingly athletic Knile Davis, still just 23, lurks in the bushes as a long-term threat who has already taken situational reps from Charles. I’m just not interested in paying this premium to hope that, at 28, Charles will reverse the downtrends and/or keep catching short touchdowns. And that’s what he’d need to do to outperform this tier.
Forte has always been a good back and a perennial, if low-end, RB1 option. But when setting 2015 expectations, it’s important to take note of the sheer statistical inflations Forte enjoyed with Trestman – and that Trestman is now in Baltimore.
With Trestman gone, the whole of this table is a little ominous, especially in the receiving sector. Short of a rush yardage stud and rarely a reliable touchdown threat, Forte’s top-end RB1 value usually depends upon elite – not merely strong – receiving production. Age may not erode pass-catching numbers to the extent it does rushing ones, but it’s hard to expect improvement as Forte turns 30 (in December).
Forte’s post-Marc Trestman outlook certainly isn’t bleak. He’s entrenched atop a fairly unimpressive depth chart, giving him a great production floor as usual. But a high-volume back who turns 30 in-season isn’t a great bet for upside, and Forte’s absolute best-case is what early MFL10ers are paying for.
Here’s a guy who will make a far better standard pick than best-ball one. By August, Peterson will almost certainly be entrenched atop someone’s depth chart. We’ll have at least a workable idea of his health and conditioning, as well as some real expectations for his usage and effectiveness. Thirty years old and out of football since last September, his outlook will still be murky, but it’ll be at least a little more aligned with his name-driven ADP. And at the moment, it’s probably time for shrewd early MFL10ers to take advantage of it. Peterson has ridden a wave of name recognition and frequent, ambiguous Rotoworld blurbs to a steady rise in exposure.
The bottom line is that this is a pick that requires extensive risk management – more so than most and far more than you want from the #15 pick. (This is not a 2013 Rob Gronkowski parallel; Peterson is an oldish back with an unclear future, likely on a new roster.) With Peterson occupying such a prominent slot on your roster (for many, your RB1), there are deeper roster ramifications to plan for. You can’t be as confident – certainly not in April – in Peterson returning that value as you would in the rest of this tier, so prepare to focus more attention at RB throughout the rest of your draft. The mid-round slots you had earmarked for specific players or positions? They need to be made more flexible to accommodate the running back depth you now need to compile. More often than not, you need RB scoring that is both consistent and predictable, which Peterson is not at the moment and may never be again.
Murray’s ADP has taken a noticeable hit since becoming an Eagle. Prior to his March 12th signing, MFL10ers were drafting Murray at 10.1; as an Eagle, he’s going a full round lower. While there are indeed reasons to have pause on a 27-year-old switching teams and fresh off a 449-touch season, Murray’s landing spot couldn’t have been sexier, for several reasons:
The new depth chart is crowded, but it’s not at toxic as it seems. Fragile and subpar on passing downs, Ryan Mathews profiles best as Murray’s backup, and Darren Sproles’ light usage doesn’t seem likely to jump much at age 32. Paid like a true franchise back, Murray profiles as fully capable of nearing LeSean McCoy’s % rushing share from 2013-14. And even if he cedes more rushes to Mathews than expected, there’s still a nice high floor at play here, considering …
…that Chip Kelly pace is just so voluminous. No team in football gives its playmakers more opportunities than Kelly’s breakneck Eagles, who in 2014 ran 6.4 plays/game more than the league average. That’s especially encouraging for Eagle backs, because…
…the Eagles could lead the NFL in rushing attempts in 2015. In his two seasons under Kelly, McCoy logged 626 rushes, most in the league and rivaled only by Murray himself. But Philadelphia looks likely to pound the ball even more this year, considering their heavy backfield investments. Not to mention, I find Kelly’s Oregon resume intriguing: his Duck offenses posted 63/37 rushing split, and his lead RBs routinely took very heavy shares. The sheer volume of snaps in play boosts the opportunity for everyone on board; that’s great news, made even better by the fact that…
…Murray will likely be running behind an even better line than he used to. In Kelly’s two years, no team in football – not even the much-ballyhooed Cowboys – even approaches the Eagles in PFF’s run blocking metric:
|San Francico 49ers||112.5|
There’s been some turnover on this line and there may be more soon, but it appears that early concerns about Murray’s loss of the Dallas line may be overblown.
I’ve never claimed to be a huge fan of Mason. My pre-draft take last March wasn’t optimistic:
Excelled in a gimmicky run game and needs a hole. Patient and purposeful; bounces smoothly and gets downhill with adequate speed. Virtually no passing game experience. May need wrist surgery.
And even after a fairly impressive NFL debut, I’m not buying in at this cost. I found Mason’s rookie year promising, but not especially so. He was often nightmarish in the passing game – an expected result after next-to-zero such experience at Auburn – and backs with poor receiving outlooks tend to fall fast from my radar. And as a runner, he didn’t blow anyone away, notching 4.0 YPC in just four of his 10 games of double-digit rushes and grading in the middle of the NFL pack in PFF’s advanced running back metrics. Despite an excellent athletic profile from last year’s combine, Mason posted a ho-hum 35.5 Elusive Rating, 22nd of 44 qualifying backs and lower than that of plodders Steven Jackson and Mark Ingram. That’s not overly damning, but it’s also not an encouraging debut for a back whose only real calling card is his athleticism.
Of course, none of this means Mason won’t become a good back and fantasy contributor. He’s a gifted athlete, and it’s encouraging that Jeff Fisher thought so highly of the rookie that he quickly installed him as his starter and erased Zac Stacy from the gameplan. (That’s a thought process I can’t quite explain, but might be a factor in Fisher’s teams having missed the postseason in 14 of his 20 seasons.) But the fact is that Mason didn’t look like any kind of dominator last year – in fact, his rookie 2014 wasn’t as impressive as Stacy’s rookie 2013. And I expect this ADP to climb a bit over the summer; young, athletic skill position guys like Mason tend to dominate offseason reports and boost their perceived value. Considering he may not be the best RB on his own depth chart – and how quickly Fisher gave Stacy the hook last year – Mason isn’t a guy I’ll have much exposure to.
Love the player, hate the price tag. Banking this high on Gurley is certainly the type of aggressive move that separates the proactive from the rat race. There’s a ton to like about him as a prospect; he’s perhaps the most gifted back in decades, for many reasons. But here in April, Gurley is a teamless rookie still rehabbing a reconstructed knee, and it’s hard to envision him seeing elite usage in Year One.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine an NFL team nabbing Gurley with a premium pick, then running him into the ground in Year One with a lion’s share of carries just months removed from major knee surgery. That concern is magnified when you consider that Gurley’s projected draft spot – the back end of Round One – would likely land him on a better-than-average team less desperate for his rookie services. He’s young, but offseason conditioning is typically unobservable in April – especially post-surgery. All told, there’s probably a better than 50/50 chance Gurley spends camp, the preseason, and perhaps the opening weeks either on PUP or given very limited opportunity. And honestly, how many scenarios can you envision in which Gurley sees the necessary usage – probably around 230-240 touches – to return this value?
I’m not here to talk you out of Gurley – even in MFL10 and redraft leagues. But you must pay appropriately, and for an April question mark like Gurley, this isn’t it.
There’s a good chance this section will be irrelevant by late-summer fantasy drafts. I have to assume that this high early ADP is rooted in a lot of autopicking, as Ellington’s value is simply overwhelmed by red flags. Where to begin? There’s his troubling injury history; “injury-prone” is often a silly, shortsighted, overused term, but it does seem to describe some players with weak tissue, poor conditioning, or just slow-recovering bodies. There’s the fact that Bruce Arians seems to covet a bigger, more workhorse-like back – and has copious options in this year’s draft. And there’s the state of the Cardinal offense, which looks to live or die on the arm of 35-year-old Carson Palmer and his recovery from his second ACL surgery.
But I also encourage you to examine Ellington’s lack of production in his second season. His rough 3.3 yards per rush didn’t fully describe his ineffectiveness, as PFF credited him with just 20 missed tackles forced across 247 touches. That resulted in far and away the worst Elusive Rating of all NFL backs to take at least half their team’s rushes – not what you’re hoping to see from a supposed big-play spark plug. He seems to fit best as a complementary back deployed for 8-12 touches a game. That’s not an encouraging profile, and even if he were to stave off competition and retain lead back duties in Arizona, there’s not much room for optimism. He’s simply too volatile – on both the field and the injury report – to demand this kind of ADP, even if he remains the Cardinals’ focal back.
Which he won’t, anyway.
I don’t want to rely on him for anything, either, but this is a fine ADP for a likely backfield dominator in such a supremely run-heavy offense. Stewart took a whopping 68.6% of Carolina’s snaps over the final six games of 2014, and the departure of DeAngelo Williams While the Panthers, who prefer a rotating stable of backs, are likely to add backfield talent in the draft, I don’t expect them to target a Stewart replacement. It would likely take an injury to keep him from commanding 60% or more of the team’s rushing opportunities.
As always, the concern here is Stewart’s health, and it’s a legitimate one. Here’s a back who has missed 22 of the team’s last 82 games with injuries up and down the body. Simply put, it’s hard to fault collective MFL10ers for not rushing to the podium to pay for Stewart’s ceiling. But he’s currently being taken behind some massive question marks (Todd Gurley?) and likely passing-down part-timers (Ellington? Giovani Bernard?). I’ve been gobbling up Stewart shares in the fourth round and later; it’s hard to find much better best-case projections in anyone around that range.
You shouldn’t need me to explain why Jennings is to be avoided beyond a late-round flier. He’s old (30), he’s inefficient (30th of 42 qualifiers for Elusive Rating in 2014, and 27th of 49 in 2013), he’s constantly banged up (has missed 32 of 80 games as a pro), and his role is crowded (Andre Williams and Shane Vereen will be heavily involved). Like Ellington, Jennings is currently sporting a silly ADP that’s absurdly unlikely to last; he’ll be available at a much more appropriate cost – that of a RB4/5 type – for a late-summer flier. He’s absolutely hands-off in this range.
I’m not sure Spiller is undervalued in the fifth round. It seems like a fair landing spot; I’m just exceedingly confident he’ll outscore 5-8 backs being taken ahead of him. Here’s a refresher on receiving production from Saint running backs under Sean Payton’s regime:
|RB Rec Leader||88||73||52||47||34||86||75||77||45||64.1|
The Saints have undergone a sheer offensive purge that has stripped the offense of lynchpin Jimmy Graham, promising flanker Kenny Stills, and passing down back Travaris Cadet. At this point, it’s hard to project how heavily Payton’s offense will skew to the pass, and there’s a solid chance they lean on the run more than ever before. But it’s also hard to expect Sean Payton to invert his offense too much, so 600+ targets should be in play for the eighth time in nine seasons. Give the running backs a 27.8% share, and they’d have 165+ targets to divvy up.
I don’t know, of course, that Spiller will spend 2015 healthy, nor even that he’ll decisively win the passing down job. But I know that he’s the only accomplished pass catcher on roster, and that even with limited Pierre Thomas-level rushing usage, Spiller could bring home a 60- or 70-catch season and destroy his early ADP. It’s climbed steadily as a Saint (and played havoc on that of my February crush, Khiry Robinson), but seems just right for such a reachable upside.
McKinnon is certainly a dice roll in an April draft, of course, as there are other noteworthy backs on the Vikings’ roster at the moment. But fading McKinnon completely puts a lot of faith into Peterson’s mangled relationship with the team and Matt Asiata’s thorough underwhelmingness. Assuming Peterson leaves town, McKinnon simply affords the Vikings their best chance at a dynamic running game.
We all know, of course, that that fact is no golden ticket, as talented backs sit behind more dependable veterans every year. It’s no secret by now that Viking coaches trust Asiata with tough interior runs, but McKinnon worked his way heavily into every other part of the 2014 game plan. Over his final eight games, he took 52.4% of all Viking rushes in relegating Asiata to a supporting role. Just as importantly, he shook off widespread passing game concerns to draw 3.7 targets a game, hinting at a 50-catch upside that would drastically outperform this ADP.
I’m certainly not sweating McKinnon’s lack of rookie touchdowns. In fact, I’m grateful for it; MFL10ers keep allowing him to fall to me in the sixth and seventh rounds, probably thanks largely to that fluky-seeming zero. Some progression to the mean Consider that, since 2000, there have been just 16 other running back seasons that totaled 110+ rushes but no touchdowns. Of the 11 cases in which the back played the following year, four found the end zone four or more times – and very few saw the kind of workload McKinnon can expect if Peterson leaves. In other words, another touchdown-less season seems all but impossible, and a reasonable touchdown rate seems well within McKinnon’s grasp.
 Elusive Rating is designed to measure a RB’s production independent of his blocking, factoring his yardage after contact and the number of missed tackles forced.