Yesterday, we covered the significance in difference of fantasy success between wide receivers that declare early for the draft versus their non-early declare counterparts. The results came out overwhelmingly in favor of those wideouts who declare early, regardless of factoring in breakout age, dominator rating, and draft capital investment. Continuing with the topic, it’s time to check in on the other positions to see if that signal is as significant the one that showed up with wide receivers.
You can circle back to that post to go deeper into the methodology, but we’re once again only accounting for players selected in the NFL draft over the past 10 years and how they performed on a per-game basis in PPR formats. Without as much set up as yesterday, let’s roll into the running back position.
RB Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years
There were 233 running backs selected over the past 10 NFL drafts, which is 80 fewer than wide receivers over that time span.
From a blanket stance, 33.5% (78) of those players have produced at least one RB3 (RB36) or better season on a per-game basis while 25.8% (60) have reached RB2 or better status and just 15.5% (36) have hit as a top-12 scorer in at least one season so far in their respective careers.
The early declare group makes up 38.6% of the field here compared to 32.9% of the wide receiver position we covered in the opening post.
That early declare group of backs crushed their non-early declare counterparts in arbitrary hit rates across the board. Despite 53 fewer overall backs in the player pool, there have been 18 more running backs reach the RB3 and RB2-plus scoring peaks from the early declare sample versus the non-group, while there have bee eight more of those backs reach RB1 scoring levels per game.
As was the case with the wide receiver position, we’re letting all drafted players through the doors here on the ground floor. With that, we’re allowing a lot more players that have longer odds of fantasy success due to draft investment into the initial pool.
164 of the 233 running backs here were selected in the fourth round or later. From that group, regardless of when they declared or not, just 31 (18.9%) of those 164 backs have had at least one RB3-plus season. 14.6% have produced at least one RB2-plus season while just 11 (6.7%) have produced an RB1 season per game with just one of those 11 backs (Devonta Freeman) doing so in multiple seasons. Aaron Jones will try to add to that this season.
As mentioned when we talked about this incoming rookie class, nothing has a higher correlation for initial fantasy success for a running back than draft capital. A day three selection as a running back has better odds at success than a wide receiver does, but is still at a disadvantage to pop, regardless of being an early declare prospect or not.
Rounds 1-3 RB Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years
Just shrinking our player pool down to the first three rounds, you can see how devalued the running back position is compared to the wide receiver position we covered in the first article. We have just 29.6% of the running backs drafted over the past 10 seasons left that were selected in the opening three rounds compared to 39.3% of the wide receiver pool.
Our sample of early versus non-early declares immediately flips on its head, with early declares accounting for 68.1% of this player pool where the wide receiver group had nearly a 50/50 split in this area of the draft among early and non-early declares.
We have 52.2% of our original early declare running backs remaining here compared to just 15.4% of the non-early declare backs that made up the entire draft sample. That’s an enormous shift in balance. Once again, the drafting process deserves some credit on initially diagnosing these players early on. Leaving for the NFL early is a signal how the league perceives talent and staffs have valued those earlier entries more than the maxed eligibility backs. If the league values a player highly enough that they’re granted early eligibility, they really aren’t pulling any punches when it comes down to actual investment.
As was the case with wideouts, we’re largely incorporating collegiate production, breakout age, and measured athleticism into the fold here at this level of draft capital. Early declare backs have an edge here in probability of reaching all scoring levels per game, but the non-early backs are not nearly as bad as the non-early wideouts from a day ago.
That holds especially true at the higher-end scoring levels. Whereas just 18.6% of the wide receivers in this bucket hit at a WR2 or better rate and just 6.8% hit at a WR1 rate, non-early declare backs in this portion of the draft are far better at reaching those scoring levels in context of their position. That’s actionable information in rookie draft selection.
Eight of the 22 non-early backs here have turned in an RB1-level scoring season per game with six of those eight backs coming from draft picks selected outside of the first round. Just 5-of-59 non-early declare wideouts from this bucket reached WR1 status.
Early declare backs have an edge over non-early declare backs, but when it comes down to non-early declare backs versus non-early wideouts, you should be siding with the running back position in the likelihood of producing a useful fantasy scoring season.
Round 1 RB Draft Selections Over the Past 10 Years
Don’t raise your babies to be running backs. Shrinking down to just first-round running backs selected over the past 10 years reduces our sample to just 16 total players. That’s just 6.9% of our starting field of players. For comparison sake, there were 34 wideouts taken in the first round over this span, accounting for 10.9% of the total player pool selected at the position.
13.3% of our starting early declare sample remains while just 2.8% of the non-early declares were selected with first-round draft capital.
When it comes to first-round running backs, you should anticipate them getting significant workloads being selected that early, especially if they are of the early declare variety. Of our 12 early declare backs taken in the first round, the only back that failed to produce one RB3 or RB2 or better season per game was David Wilson, who had his career reduced to just 21 total games due to a spinal injury. The only other back in that early-declare sample yet to produce an RB1-level season per game is Josh Jacobs, who has just one season under his belt, in which he came in at RB16 in points per game a year ago.
If you’re a non-early declare running back, you’re drawing long odds at reaching first-round status, but it’s definitely not as illustrious as the names that make up the early declare list. Our four-man sample here is C.J. Spiller (2010), Doug Martin (2012), and a pair of 2018 backs in Sony Michel and Rashaad Penny. Spiller (one) and Martin (two) combined for three RB2-plus seasons per game in 16 combined NFL seasons while Michel and Penny have yet to reach that scoring status over their first two seasons in the league.
Looking at the 2020 Class
The top of this 2020 rookie running back class is filled with early declare backs. Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, and Clyde-Edwards Helaire are expected to be the first four running backs selected in this draft in some order and all are early declare options. Following them, Cam Akers, A.J. Dillon, Eno Benjamin, Anthony McFarland, and Darrynton Evans are also all early declare backs that should flirt with being selected in the opening 3-4 rounds this April.
The maxed-out eligibility backs with buzz are Zack Moss, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Joshua Kelley, and James Robinson. We’ll have to await draft capital on all of the backs here. If selected at comparable draft capital to some of the secondary names above, they’ll have lowered odds than those early declare backs.
The advantage here for those backs paired with yesterday is that the window is far more open for these players than non-early declare wideouts selected with similar draft capital. When the draft settles, that may make players such as Moss and Vaughn as still having higher odds at fantasy success and making them a better rookie dynasty pick over a Denzel Mims, Michael Pittman or other non-early declare wideouts with similar draft investment.