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Did 2016 Kill the Zero-RB Movement?

Early-round running backs enjoyed great success in 2016, while early-round receivers took a step backward. Does this signal a return to RB-centricity?

Most of the Zero-RB chatter thus far this offseason has centered around two central themes: (1) that 2016 was the Year of the Early-Round Running back, and (2) that we’re back to the RB-centric days of yore. Relatively speaking, there’s a lot of fact behind the first. Top-tier running backs feasted in 2016 – at least, more so than they typically do. In fact, last year, the RB6 (Devonta Freeman) actually outscored the WR6 (Julio Jones) for the first time in several years.

But I’m not so sure about the second point. Even in a shaky year for premium-round wideouts, the top options mostly stayed nice and consistent atop the leaderboards. While early-round RBs actually managed to keep pace with them scoring-wise, that’s an anomaly in recent history, where the top WR tier has always brought home an advantage. It’s true that the top-top RBs – the absolute upper crust in a given year – generally pepper the tops of overall scoring charts. But drafters simply haven’t been identifying them well enough to prioritize them higher on a macro scale. Consider that, over the past 5 years, only 6 of the 15 top-3 RBs had been drafted as such.

We can certainly discuss the values of the top RBs independently, and their own degrees of risk vs. reward. There are certainly a select few that need to be prioritized. But we can’t ignore the fact that they do carry higher bust rates than their WR counterparts, and that, by and large, the wideouts tend to produce more points. It appears that that massive RB1 value is really only realized in terms of dodging landmines and choosing the right RB1(s), rather than merely nudging them all up your draft board.

A discussion of floor: RB v. WR over the last five years

All of this is babble, of course, without hard data, so here’s some:

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Image and video hosting by TinyPic

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Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

"Underperforming" is termed as finishing more than six spots (half a tier) below one's positional ADP. (For example, the ADP RB3 finishing RB12 would be an underperformance. The ADP RB5 finishing RB7 is not, by my measures; that's well within the variance level I'm comfortable with.
 
"Underperforming below tier" is termed as finishing more than 12 spots (a full tier) below ADP.
 

A lot of the “2016 proves we should prioritize RB1 over WR1” talk is predicated on the notion that the 2016 RBs were vastly superior to the WRs. I’m not on board there. Yes, they kept pace in terms of fantasy scoring, and the top three backs were dominant on an otherworldly level. But much of that was a byproduct of the top-tiered wide receivers suffering a larger stumble than usual. The RB1 and WR1 bust rates were exactly the same, which itself was unprecedented over the five seasons studied. All told, 2016 was indeed out-of-whack for WR1s when compared to the 2012-15 span. It certainly didn’t help that four ADP WR1s (Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Keenan Allen, Dez Bryant) missed multiple games, after all. Still, that doesn’t let them entirely off the hook. The 2014 season, for instance, actually saw five WR1s lose multiple games and still produced more stable finishes overall.

The 2016 wideout crop, sadly, featured two full-season underperformers (DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson) that dragged down the entire cohort. Had even one of those two panned out as expected, we’d be looking at yet another season of WR1s outperforming RB1s. The good news is that those two weren’t exactly fluky. We could somewhat smell those drop-offs coming, considering their shaky-to-awful quarterbacking situations. That actually helps us identify some relevant indicators to look out for in 2017. By and large, though, we got what we expected from the rest of the tier, and I don’t consider 2016 to be very predictive for the future. There are few real injury concerns for this year’s WR1 crop entering camp, and assuming Andrew Luck gets healthy, only one (Hopkins again) carries real worry over the state of his quarterbacking.

The running backs, on the other hand, panned out noticeably better than usual. They busted a little less than the 2012-15 aggregate, thanks mostly to the otherworldly per-game brilliance of David Johnson and LeVeon Bell, as well as an absurd increase in touchdown rate. Still, even with all of that working out so nicely, the ADP RB1s managed to only pull even with the WR1s in terms of hit-to-miss ratio, not eclipse them. Early backs were relatively great in 2016, but still far from sure things. When the dust had cleared, exactly half of the RB1s and half of the WR1s worked out to expectation, which was the best RB1 hit rate of the five years studied – and the lowest for the WR1s.

And, as (almost) always, when they busted, they busted hard – even harder than the wideouts who did. In fact, the busts fell even further than RB1 busts usually fall. That’s a relatively common occurrence (for reasons we’ll discuss later), and 2016 was no exception. Most of it was injury-related – Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles missed virtually the whole season, while Eddie Lacy and Doug Martin missed most of it. But there’s usually even more of an injury bug than that, so 2016 seemed relatively lucky for early RBs.

The only two real season-long underachievers in 2016 were Lamar Miller, who sat out two games of his own, and Todd Gurley, whose regression wasn’t a huge surprise in that god-awful Rams offense. Typically, though, we see more healthy busts than that. In 2015 we saw notable underachievement from Eddie Lacy, C.J. Anderson, Jeremy Hill, and DeMarco Murray, all of whom played 14+ games. The top two backs in 2014, LeSean McCoy and Charles, both slid noticeably from their ADPs despite healthy seasons. And in 2013, we were let down by Adrian Peterson, C.J. Spiller, Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, and Alfred Morris in relatively healthy years.

All told, it was a particularly fruitful year for the backs, but one we should greet with a certain degree of skepticism. The numbers were skewed a bit by a handful of workhorse performances, to the extent that we don’t see very often, and can’t confidently project going forward. And those long-term injuries were a reminder that, even in the best RB times, they carry more fragility than WRs tend to (see below).

In the above data, we see that, almost without fail, underperforming WR1s still manage to outdo underperforming RB1s. Annually, from 2013 through last year, WR1 “busts” didn’t fall as far down the value board as RB1 busts, by an average of 6.6 positional spots. Even in 2012, where that discrepancy was flip-flopped, WR1s still busted far less often than RB1s and held value much better. We see from the chart that the tier suffered mightily from long-term injuries to Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and Hakeem Nicks, yet produced very closely to ADP expectations.

Contrary to public perception, that advantage held firmly last year, too. The average WR1 bust dropped 27.0 slots on the WR board, but RB1 busts fell an absurd 43.0 slots themselves. And there’s a primary narrative that can, to some degree, explain the “safety net” that a wideout-heavy draft approach enjoy.

The disproportionate injury bug is, mostly, real

Simply put: Running backs tend to suffer more injuries than wideouts, and why should that surprise us? A typical featured back will see 16-20 touches per game – and pick up a handful of hard-charging blitzers – which creates more opportunities to be tackled. A receiver who catches 4-7 passes a game simply isn’t taking the same kind of punishment – nor is he cutting and juking in the open field quite as often. As a result, in the 2012-16 data above, we see more missed games from the top RBs (***) than from the top WRs (***).

But hold on a second. Zach Binney, a PhD student at Emory University, contributed a fantastic four-part study on NFL injuries to Football Outsiders in 2015, and the position-by-position discrepancy isn’t quite as wide as you might think. From 2000-2014 – the range of Binney’s study – he noted that backs and wideouts overall typically fell into the same statistical pool in terms of losing game time to injury.

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What Binney did find, however, was a small yet noticeable discrepancy between RBs and WRs in terms of actual time missed. Roughly 15-16% of charted WR injuries cost the wideout 4 or more games, compared to 17-18% for RBs. Binney also noted that general knee and ankle injuries tended to sideline backs markedly longer than other positions, which makes sense, considering their increased usage (and shots to the lower body) and their elevated reliance upon sharp cutting in the open field.

(Interestingly, Binney also pointed out recently that, since the NFL did away with the “probable” tag on team injury reports in 2016, the rate of “questionable” players suiting up for their next game has predictably soared to roughly 73%. It hasn’t been a huge jump, but a marked step toward “questionable” becoming “near-probable.”)

so, how do we apply this to 2017?

We can project the top wideouts (Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Jordy Nelson) to hold first-round value with at least solid confidence. And we can feel great about Michael Thomas and T.Y. Hilton holding steady around the 1/2 turn. So, then, where do the next crop of running backs fit into the picture? Let's examine them one by one.

Melvin GordonI recently wrote a Spotlight piece on Gordon, which highlights his insane 2016 workload and his stance as a bona fide, reception-hoarding, touchdown-dominant bell cow. If he were more efficient on a per-carry basis, he'd likely rival Elliott as the RB3. With Gordon, I see a floor and a ceiling both strong enough to outdo the cluster of first-round wideouts. That said, he is a running back, so he carries a bit more risk than they do. Verdict: It depends upon the strategy of your particular draft, but he's generally on even footing with the top wideouts.

LeSean McCoyHe's an interesting case. McCoy is a consensus first-round pick. But he also fits much of the criteria for identifying underperformers. He's old for his position (29), he's no stranger to missing time (5 games over the past 2 years), and he doesn't dominate his team's RB carries on the level of the top tier (a strong but not great 19.3 touches in Buffalo). He's also routinely pulled at the goal line, too, so last year's 14 total touchdowns look incredibly fluky. He'd only managed 26 over his previous 56 games. Verdict: I can't imagine taking him above the top tier of WRs, and I wouldn't fault you a bit for letting him slip right past you in Round 1. At this point, I think he's on even ground with the likes of Thomas and Hilton - and I prefer their position's consistency.

Jay AjayiI've always loved Ajayi's profile and game, and I do like him to threaten 325 touches in 2017. But I don't know how he fits into the Round 1 picture. The Dolphins were the league's slowest-paced team in 2016, snapping an NFL-low 913 snaps, and as a mediocre-at-best team I don't love their touchdown prospects. Ajayi could lead the league in rushing, but he likely won't be knocking on the door of 12+ touchdowns. He's not especially ball-dominant, either, as the Dolphins have Kenyan Drake and passing-down specialist Damien Williams in the fold. Verdict: Without claims to a truly monstrous workload or a great touchdown outlook, Ajayi can't be considered ahead of the first eight receivers.

DeMarco MurrayMurray was a revelation for chunks of 2016, but he doesn't belong in the Round 1 discussion. He's 29 now, participating in a much more crowded offense than last year, and his production sagged a bit down the 2016 stretch. It's hard to imagine it bloating back up in a late-career stage, especially with Derrick Henry in tow and his offense adding multiple passing-game weapons. The Titans, already a moderately-paced team, will almost certainly skew at least a bit more pass-heavy in 2017, so Murray's ceiling isn't far beyond his expectation. Verdict: Murray looks like a strict Round 2 back. He won't dominate the ball, and he could ultimately cede more and more work to Henry.

Devonta FreemanFreeman has been a truly elite per-touch performer over the past two years, but I'm out on him as a first-rounder. He ceded a lot of work to Tevin Coleman last year, averaging a good-not-great 17.6 touches in 2016. I love his dual-threat game and his short-yardage production, but much of that comes from all-but-unsustainable efficiency ratios. Verdict: He's by no means a Round 1 guy.

Conclusion

All told, when we’re weighing our early-round options by position, I don’t think much can be gleaned from 2016. While those early running backs performed a little better than usual and the wideouts performed a little worse, I don’t see enough to discredit recent history. I still believe in targeting a typical Round 1 wideout over a typical Round 1 runner. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not proposing we shrink away from the RB spot altogether, and there’s not a single WR I’d prefer over Johnson, Bell, or Elliott – and I’m more into Melvin Gordon in that range than most seem to be. But I have no qualms in stating that at least six or seven of the other eight first-round picks, outside of two-QB or superflex drafts, should absolutely be wide receivers. And generally speaking, I’m more interested in the wideouts in Rounds 2 and 3, as well. On the basis of foresight, there’s still much stronger value in targeting receivers with more early-round urgency. They typically score more, and they typically bust less often.