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David Johnson, Todd Gurley, and the Case for Drafting a Running Back First Overall

In a world where wide receivers rule, Bonnema digs through the data to see if drafting a running back first overall is still a viable strategy for 2016.

Congratulations! You landed the first overall draft pick. You literally get to choose any player you want!

Back in the day, this was a luxury pick because it meant having first crack at the best running backs in football. But things have changed. Running backs are no longer viewed as the dominate, must-have, can’t-go-wrong league-winners they once were. Instead, they’ve become liabilities, and many of us prefer to go with safer, no-brainer picks with higher upside—i.e. wide receivers.

After what happened last year it’s not all that surprising. The running back apocalypse that was 2015 makes even the most hardcore early-round RB truthers nervous. But drafting one first overall (or second or third overall), though not for the fainthearted, is still a viable strategy this season, even in the current pass-happy landscape that is the NFL.

A Balanced Diet Makes For Stronger Rosters

Before diving straight in, let’s have a quick word about overall draft strategy. Upside Down Drafting, Do the Opposite, Zero RB, whatever you want to call it, is the new trend. Actually, trend isn’t the right word because that suggests it’s temporary. More like, it’s the new norm.

As such, the consensus ADP shows Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and Julio Jones as the top three picks of 2016 (we’ll refer to them as The Big Three from this point forward). If The Big Three do hold their value through the end of summer, it will mark the first time a wide receiver has gone first overall ever1.

Over the last few seasons we’ve heard a lot of chatter about taking pass-catchers early and passing on running backs. The net result of which is a cluster of wide receivers disappearing before the fourth round, while “fragile rushers” get shoved to the bottom of ranks.

It’s a good strategy. The return on investment of wide receivers bears out in the end, particularly in PPR scoring. In the last six years the top 50 wide receivers combined to outscore the top 50 running backs by more than 9,700 fantasy points. There are a lot of reasons for this; most notably receptions. But the biggest takeaway is that in general, receivers score more points than running backs in this format.

So yes, locking up a few of them in the first three or four rounds is ideal. But waiting until the fourth or fifth before taking your first running back is risky. If you think you’ll just work waivers during the season and build on opportunity, remember that everyone else in your league has the same exact plan. People stockpile running backs from Round 6 to 16.

And if quantity doesn’t do you in, quality will. JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) put together a great study back in the summer of 2014 regarding the bust rates of both running backs and wide receivers. His findings showed what you probably already assume: the rate of failure increases significantly from the fifth round and, Zachariason writes,

“According to the bust rate data, the odds of you actually getting significant fantasy assets at wide receiver and running back past Round 5 or 6 aren't favorable.”

Aren’t favorable is a kind way to put it. The odds hate you past Round 6. You can find usable players in the back half of the draft of course, but where running backs are concerned, your chance of landing the elusive league-winner is very small.

What does this have to do with owning the first draft pick? Not much. Other than to say no matter which position you target, balance is better. Going all in at a single position does nothing more than create deficiencies across the rest of your roster. Keep in mind that 22 players get selected--nearly two rounds worth--between your picks. Supplies will go fast. Get at least two running backs by the sixth round, or even better, two in the first four.

And besides, taking a running back early is the new Upside Down Drafting (or Do The Opposite or whatever). Not only does it give you a contrarian advantage, it’s also a great way to catch your league off guard and shake up strategies.

Speaking Of Bust Rates

There’s a perception that running backs are unreliable and easily injured as a natural part of playing the position. This perception is what launched the early-round receiver movement a few years ago. But I wanted to know just how accurate we have been as drafters over the last several years.

Some of the data in the following tables is similar to what Zachariason did in 2014, and a similar process. But I shifted the focus to only running backs selected in the first and second rounds, and then just running backs selected first overall.

The ADP data comes from MyFantasyLeague. I used them for this study because of their customizable search criteria, which is as follows:

  • PPR Scoring
  • 12 teams
  • players drafted in 85 percent of real drafts, not mocks
  • only drafts that occurred after August 1st of the respective year

And since I’m an optimist, this is spun from a hit rate standpoint as opposed to bust rate. I pulled data from the last six years, which covers enough of a time period to include when it was still cool to draft lots of running backs.

The tables are pretty self-explanatory. The year is when the back was drafted. Quantity is how many backs were drafted in said year. Top 12 is how many of those backs finished as a top-12 running back. Hit rate is the percentage of accuracy (only Weeks 1-16 were considered). Let’s take a look:

Running Backs Selected In The First Round

Year Quantity Top 12 Hit Rate Top 24 Hit Rate
2015 4 1 25% 1 25%
2014 5 5 100% 5 100%
2013 9 4 44.4% 5 55.6%
2012 6 3 50% 6 100%
2011 7 3 42.9% 5 71.4%
2010 7 5 71.4% 7 100%
  38 21 55.3% 29 76.3%

In total, there have been 38 running backs selected in the first round since 2010. Twenty-one of them, 55.3 percent, finished in the top 12. I threw in the top-24 rankings for good measure, and it’s encouraging to see that 76.3 percent of backs selected in the first round made the cut. Basically, we have a greater than 75 percent chance of landing a weekly usable rusher in the first round.

Moving down a round, things change.

Running Backs Selected In The Second Round

Year Quantity Top 12 Hit Rate Top 24 Hit Rate
2015 5 2 40% 5 100%
2014 5 3 60% 4 80%
2013 5 3 60% 4 80%
2012 4 2 50% 2 50%
2011 6 2 33.3% 5 83.3%
2010 3 0 0% 1 33.3%
  28 12 42.9% 21 75%

While our chances of hitting a top-24 back remained about the same, our chances of hitting a top-12 back dropped to 42.9 percent. This drop-off, a 22.4 percent change, is difficult to quantify but it does forecast what happens the further we get away from Round 1.

In total, if you combine all running backs selected in Rounds 1 and 2 over the last six years, you have a 50/50 chance of landing a top-12 option, and 75 percent chance of landing a top-24 option. Those numbers encourage us to, at a minimum, draft at least one running back before Round 3.

For context, there were 17 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the last six years; 13 of them—76 percent—finished in the top 12. That hit rate is the driving force behind the anti-running back movement.

The Accuracy of the First Overall Draft Pick and the Effects of PPR

Plain logic says the longer we wait to draft a player, the less likely that player is to rank at the top of his position come season’s end. We saw a 22.4 percent change from Round 1 to Round 2 per the information above.

But what if we were to look at just the first overall draft pick, since that’s our mission statement in the context of this exercise. To do so, I used the same ADP data from above using the same perimeters. How accurate have we been as drafters over the last 15 years?

Once again, the following data is pretty self-explanatory. RB rank is where that player finished at his respective position (Weeks 1-16). I also threw in an RB/WR/TE column to show how that player finished relative to the other skill positions minus quarterbacks.

Year Player Draft Position Games Played RB Rank RB/WR/TE Rank
2015 Adrian Peterson 1.01 15 2 12
2014 LeSean McCoy 1.01 15 11 38
2013 Adrian Peterson 1.01 14 7 20
2012 Arian Foster 1.01 15 3 7
2011 Adrian Peterson 1.01 12 14 33
2010 Chris Johnson 1.01 15 8 15
2009 Adrian Peterson 1.01 15 2 2
2008 LaDainian Tomlinson 1.01 15 10 16
2007 LaDainian Tomlinson 1.01 15 2 3
2006 LaDainian Tomlinson 1.01 15 1 1
2005 LaDainian Tomlinson 1.01 15 2 2
2004 Priest Holmes 1.01 8 13 34
2003 LaDainian Tomlinson 1.01 15 2 2
2002 Marshall Faulk 1.01 13 10 13
2001 Edgerrin James 1.01 6 32 83
      13.5 7.9 18.7

Maybe it’s us, or maybe it’s because we had the luxury of two all-time greats (Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson) to pad our score, but we have been excellent at projecting the top rusher. The first overall selection had a yearly average rank of 7.9—well within RB1 considerations and nearing elite status. Furthermore, they had an average finish of 18.7 among skill positions not including quarterbacks. Finishing as a top-20 player in all the land may not be the goal of your first draft pick, but it’s hardly disappointing.

The story, of course, has two sides:

Year Player Draft Position Games Played WR Rank RB/WR/TE Rank
2015 Antonio Brown 1.02 15 2 2
2014 Calvin Johnson 1.03 12 18 30
2013 Calvin Johnson 1.05 14 1 3
2012 Calvin Johnson 1.05 15 1 1
2011 Andre Johnson 1.08 6 73 144
2010 Andre Johnson 1.06 13 7 14
2009 Larry Fitzgerald 1.05 15 6 10
2008 Randy Moss 1.05 15 11 24
2007 Steve Smith 2.03 14 14 26
2006 Steve Smith 2.01 13 12 22
2005 Randy Moss 1.08 15 24 47
2004 Randy Moss 1.06 11 26 50
2003 Marvin Harrison 1.1 14 5 12
2002 Randy Moss 1.08 15 4 14
2001 Randy Moss 1.07 15 6 13
      13.5 14 27.5

Not every draft in the last 15 years had a wide receiver go in the first round. There were two instances where none were drafted above Round 2. So it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, per se, but it’s still relevant to our cause.

On average, the first selection finished 14th at his position, a significant drop off in comparison to running backs. Further, they finished with a rank of 27.5 among skill positions not including quarterbacks. Skewing these stats is that little 2011 number Andre Johnson pulled on us when he played only six games and finished as WR73. But even if you remove that year, wide receivers still finished lower than running backs.

One area where both positions aligned was games played. On average, we were awarded 13.5 starts from the players in this study. That doesn’t repel the “running backs are more likely to get injured” rhetoric completely, but it’s nonetheless encouraging. Truth is, injuries are the only thing we can’t accurately project.

In comparing both tables, there’s a clear changing of the guard that occurred around 2012. In the last four years, the average finish of a wide receiver among the skill positions was ninth overall, and that was with an old and broken Calvin Johnson. Meanwhile, running backs dropped to an average of 19.2. For what it’s worth, the median rank relative to position was 5.75 for running backs and 5.5 for wide receivers—suggesting that we’re getting better at projecting top-ranked players.

How this pertains to PPR scoring versus standard scoring is where things get interesting, and why it’s important to design your strategy around your league’s settings.

We mentioned earlier that the 50 highest scoring wide receivers over the last six years combined to outscore the 50 highest scoring running backs by 9,700 fantasy points. Remove receptions from that equation and the gap closes to 141 points.

In fact, if you were to rank them by standard scoring, eight of the 10 highest scoring players over the last six years (not including quarterbacks) are running backs. In PPR scoring, that number drops to a 60/40 split in favor of wide receivers. This just serves as a reminder that if you’re drafting a running back in the first round of a PPR league, be sure it’s one who has a firm role in the passing game.   

And the Draft Dominator Says…

We can stare at charts and numbers all day but until we put the strategy to the test, we know nothing. Using the Draft Dominator, I ran through several mocks at the 1.01 position with the following settings:

  • 12 Teams
  • 16 Rounds
  • Full PPR
  • 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 FLX, 1 TE, 1 K, 1 DEF

One of the great things about the Draft Dominator, aside from running full mocks in minutes, is you can manually adjust each position, so if you want to lower the importance of quarterbacks, just move the slider down to your liking. I didn’t do that for this study, but it’s a great option that returns accurate mocks if you know the tendencies of your draft mates.

Let’s start with the wide receiver version first.

There is a lot of to like about this team. In fact, I love it and have the utmost confidence that it’s one of the best possible for a 12 team league. You can swap out Brown for any of the Big Three and I’d be just as confident (personally, I prefer Jones to Brown and Beckham).

The Draft Dominator loves it too. Per the Rate My Team function, using David Dodds’ profile, the Dominator had this to say:

  • With great in-season management, we think you have about a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs.
  • With good in-season management, we think you have about a 90 percent chance of making the playoffs.
  • With average in-season management, we think you have an 84 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Basically, we’re going to the playoffs so long as this squad avoids a rash of injuries.

Here’s what happened when I took a running back first overall:

This one doesn’t have the same sex appeal as the other team, but it’s what I like to call “playoff pretty”.

At first glance most folks are going to scan this lineup, see C.J. Anderson, gag a bit and just write this squad off as risky. I would urge those folks to read what Phil Alexander wrote about him. The fact is, Anderson is the lead back and has little competition for carries.

There are a lot of approaches that would make this team different. I probably should have picked up a fifth running back or seventh wide receiver instead of a second quarterback. For that matter, ditching the second tight end and doing both would make this team stronger at the two most important positions, but overall depth would suffer. I also had an opportunity to draft Demaryius Thomas instead of Brandon Marshall, which would have resulted in acquiring Eric Decker. It also would have pushed me away from Anderson, who I think is undervalued.

The Draft Dominator was quite satisfied as well:

  • With great in-season management, we think you have about a 90 percent chance of making the playoffs.
  • With good in-season management, we think you have about an 85 percent chance of making the playoffs.
  • With average in-season management, we think you have a 74 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Even though it’s not as exciting as the other team, you could basically set it and forget it and still make the playoffs. It also has a higher floor, even if a bit risky.

The point of this exercise is to illustrate that it’s still incredibly important to have a running back that has a clear role and potential to be the top at his position, of which they are maybe three or four. Owning at least one of them is paramount to sustainable success.

 The one I want, especially in PPR leagues, is David Johnson. I’ve already made my stance on him evidently clear. Chris Wesseling of NFL.com even agrees with me. And if not Johnson, I want Todd Gurley. In fact, this write up by Cian Fahey almost converted me. Le’Veon Bell might also be in the discussion if not for health concerns and looming suspension. But he’s just not worth the risk.

Benediction

I threw around the words “league-winner” more than once in this article. The truth is, there is only one league winner and it’s not a position you draft; it’s a position you take. In other words, you are the league winner. You are the one in charge of roster construction and setting lineups. You are the one working waivers and negotiating trades. How you draft is only the beginning, and a small part of the bigger picture.

As always, every strategy works so long as you draft the right players. Generally, the rule of thumb in fantasy sports is to capitalize on supply and demand. The rate at which quality degrades when it comes to the running back position is enough of an argument to draft one or two in the first few rounds. Furthermore, it’s easier to project wide receivers, which means we can be more aggressive on waivers throughout the season and still end up with good depth at that position. But in the end, it’s all about finding a balance. As mentioned, going all in at one position early in the draft just makes your team top heavy.

Full disclosure, when I began research for this article, I thought I could find enough evidence to convince anyone that drafting a running back first overall is a still a good strategy. Maybe I’ve done that. Maybe not. Maybe you read this and are now convinced that taking a wide receiver is absolutely the best strategy. I can’t fault anyone for that stance.

But doing so means missing out on two of the most promising players in the league. Neither Gurley or Johnson came close to playing a full season last year but they both ended up as two of the highest scoring running backs. They passed every test you would ask of a rookie and we are not even close to seeing their full potential. They are too good to pass up on, regardless of your draft position.

Having the No. 1 draft spot is, once again, a luxury pick.