As part of covering the 2021 NFL Season through a fantasy lens, we recently explored recent ADP at the wide receiver position to diagnose the hit rate of lower-priced WR1 options. Working off that, we are going to dive into some ADP at the running back position. Specifically looking at the hit rate of handcuffs, lower-priced RB1s, and if crowded backfields provide any value.
Handcuffing Top Backs
Kicking things off, let’s take a look at handcuffing high-priced running backs in hopes of landing a lottery ticket. In the true sense of handcuffing for fantasy, that means you are selecting a running back attached to a high draft capital running back in the event that that backup would then be elevated to the same caliber of fantasy status that the high-priced back had.
Looking at ADP since 2010, there have been 71 running backs to carry an average draft position in the first round in PPR formats. Among the RB2 options attached to those 71 backs, just eight turned in a top-24 scoring season.
Top-24 RB Handcuffs Since 2010
|Year||Player||Team||Pos. ADP||Avg. Pick||RB Finish||PPR Pts.||PPG||RB1 Weeks|
Of our eight backs that hit, three hit for top-12 scoring seasons on their own. Two of those were attached to Le’Veon Bell, who played in just six games in 2015 to give way to De’Angelo Williams and then in 2018, Bell ended up holding out the entire season, clearing a runway for James Conner. The other top-12 scoring season came from Fred Jackson in 2013, who was being selected roughly 125 picks after C.J. Spiller, who was the RB5 that season in ADP.
Eight players over an 11-year sample is not great, but coming close to one per season looks a lot better than the 11.3% hit rate for those 71 handcuff backs attached to first-rounders. The most obvious reason for this is that when these top-flight, scarce resource backs do miss time, their backups do not occupy the same role they had. This is largely obvious from a talent perspective gap. This has been a recent issue for someone like Alexander Mattison. Dalvin Cook has missed time in each of his seasons in the league, but the Vikings have always used a passing-down back alongside Mattison in Cook’s absences, leaving him reliant on game script. When Cook missed Week 6 last season versus the Falcons, Atlanta went up 20-0 early in the game and Mattison only played 27 snaps (48%) and closed the week with a disappointing RB46 scoring week in relief . When Cook then sat out in Week 17 against the Lions, the game stayed in neutral game script and Mattison was on the field for 63% of the snaps and closed as the RB4 in scoring.
Opening things up to all RB2 options (per ADP) regardless of if the first running back on their team was selected by gamers was in the first round or not, there have been 22 top-12 scoring seasons from team RB2 options over this 11-season sample and 54 top-24 seasons. To add on, there have been another five top-12 seasons from running backs taken as the third back or later or on their teams and 21 top-24 seasons from that group.
In other words, on average 2.5 top-12 backs per season have been the second back or later taken on their team in drafts and 6.8 top-24 backs per season have come from that group.
Handcuffing high-caliber backs has had a hit rate that is tough to chase, but we do know that a handful of secondary backs regularly make seasonal impacts per year.
Handcuff Hits Are Rarely Top-100 Players
Looking above, you may have noticed that two of the backs that hit here (Tevin Coleman and Darren Sproles) also carried ADP in the top-100 picks. Those backs entered the season with the perception of standalone value and although they did not smash through their ceiling outcome, they delivered on those expectations. Having another top-100 back attached to a first-round running back has been a rare occurrence, making up just seven of our 71-player RB2 sample of backs attached to first-round backs.
Having a top-100 back that also is not the first running back selected on their team and asking them to hit is also rare.
Looking at all RB2 or later team backs regardless if attached to a first-rounder or not, we have a 52-player sample of top-100 picks that were not the first back selected from their team. Among those 52 players, just 17 (31.4%) finished the season higher than their positional ADP with only 15 (27.8%) ending with a top-24 season and just five (9.3%) closing with a top-12 campaign. This was effectively known as the “Ben Tate Zone” for a number of seasons and now that mantle is being passed on to Tony Pollard.
In 2020, there were eight RB2 backs taken in this range, while three ended up as top-24 options in J.K. Dobbins, Ronald Jones, and the biggest hit of the group, Kareem Hunt. Hunt himself was part of a unique circumstance as he and Nick Chubb were just the third set of backfield teammates to have ADP in the fifth round and higher, joining De’Angelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in 2010, and Sony Michel and James White in 2019.
Of our 75-player sample of top-24 backs that were not the first back taken from their team, the average ADP for those players is 133.5 while 57 of them (76%) were selected in the 10th round or later.
Current top-100 handcuff picks right now over the past week are Hunt and Jones again, as well as James Robinson, Melvin Gordon, Raheem Mostert, Tony Pollard, and James Conner.
Discounted RB1s Have Been a Trap
Of those 27 top-12 seasons from backs that were not the first running back taken in drafts from their team, we already know only three were attached to first-round running backs. 20 were attached to backs taken outside of the second round, 19 outside of the third round, and 14 of them were attached to lead backs per ADP selected outside of the fourth round and later.
Expanding that out to our top-24 field, 80% of the RB2-plus scorers that were not the first back taken on their teams were attached to a lead back being selected after the second round while 69.3% were attached to lead backs taken later than the third round and 56% outside of the fourth round.
In our same sample since 2010, there have been 93 backs that were the first running back selected on their team, but were also selected outside of the top-24 at their position on average. Of those 93 backs, 41 (44.1%) of them beat their positional ADP, with just 28 (30.1%) having turned in a top-24 season and just seven (7.5%) delivering a top-12 fantasy season. If buying in on the upside potential for a backup running back, attacking softer RB1 options not only inherently makes sense due to the market, but also plays out accordingly in results with those backs struggling to pop.
Current backs being selected in that area of drafts as the first back on their rosters over the past week in FFPC formats are Chase Edmonds, Javonte Williams, Trey Sermon, Michael Carter, Leonard Fournette, Damien Harris, David Johnson, and Zack Moss.
High-Priced Ambiguous Backfields
So wait… combining the previous two sections first showed us that top-100 handcuff picks have historically been trap players, but also that discounted RB1 options have been the best bucket of lead backs to target. For players such as Melvin Gordon, Raheem Mostert, Ronald Jones, and James Conner that fit one bucket as an avoid and another as a potential target, what do we do?
One final area to touch on is tight backfields that are discounted because gamers largely have no clue how to project them playing out over the summer. To get here, we are combining both of our prior sections. Here we’re looking at teams with two or more backs being selected in the single-digit rounds, but with their lead back going outside of the top-24 at the position.
As of this past week in FFPC formats, the Cardinals, Broncos, 49ers, and Buccaneers are teams that qualify for these conditions.
It actually has occurred 20 times over our sample and a Patriots backfield (2018) was only one of those. Among that 20-team sample, those situations have produced just three RB1 scoring seasons and 13 top-24 seasons. No team produced two top-24 backs in the same season, although the 2010 Giants combo of Ahmad Bradshaw (RB12) and Brandon Jacobs (RB26) came close.
In that 20-team sample, the lead back per ADP outscored the secondary back 15 times. Finding a season-long RB1 from these teams is a tough ask, but gamers have gotten it right far more often than not when diagnosing the top scorer on these rosters. That gives extra support to players such as Chase Edmonds, Trey Sermon, Javonte Williams, and Leonard Fournette being the better of their backfield cohorts not far off in ADP despite showing up as riskier investments overall in turning in a high-caliber season.
The reasoning we do not see backs from this bucket of backfield ambiguity pop often is due to the fact that we are correct in diagnosing the talent level of these backs and they end up hurting each other to an extent while active . The most recent example of this is Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay a year ago. In seven games where Phillip Lindsay missed or exited early, Gordon averaged 20.1 touches and 15.2 PPR points per game as opposed to 13.3 touches and 11.5 points per game sharing the backfield. Gordon also missed one game in Week 6 and Lindsay then had a season-high 23 touches and 101 yards. But when the two played together, neither was a reliable asset outside of FLEX status.
This as opposed to the group earlier where you have a discounted team RB1 elevated by his depth chart status surrounding unknown commodities. We saw this happen in elevating a player like Myles Gaskin a year ago early in the season after we were collectively drafting Jordan Howard as the top back in Miami. Oddly enough, Gaskin is now in the reverse situation where there is trepidation that he is the feature back, but there is a cavernous gap to the rest of the depth chart in current ADP. The same for Mike Davis.
Bringing everything home, the running backs that currently check the boxes of being selected in the 10th round or later attached to these discounted RB1 backs are Tevin Coleman, Giovani Bernard, Phillip Lindsay, Devin Singletary, James White, and Rhamondre Stevenson. Some non-top-100 options not attached to fully discounted RB1, but are attached to non-first rounders are Kenyan Drake, Jamaal Williams, Rashaad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, Alex Collins, J.D. McKissic, Jaret Patterson, Darrel Williams, Javian Hawkins, Qadree Ollison, Samaje Perine, Kenneth Gainwell, Benny Snell, Malcolm Brown, and Tarik Cohen.
None of those players are going to get you excited when pushing the button on their names in drafts right now, but it at least provides a target criteria outside of “if an elite starter gets hurt, this guy could pay off” as a reason to select a backup running back.
Will 2021 Change the Dynamic?
One thing left hanging in the air here is the unknown impact of the NFL adding a 17th game to the regular season. Will the addition of an extra game create any new game theory for Head Coaches across the league in terms of spreading out “load management” for their backfields? If a team has a short week and viable backfield depth, there would be incentive to reduce workloads or outright rest players, especially in those situations like Tampa Bay, Denver, Arizona or San Francisco, where there is a perception that there are equal backs in the backfield that are viable. Or in the case of a Tony Pollard who showed upside in his lone opportunity a year ago if the Cowboys needed to just flat out give Ezekiel Elliott a week off. We have reached the galaxy brain portion of things here since we have no idea if teams will handle having an extra game any differently at all, but just some food for thought in closing since it is a new wrinkle to the dynamic.
Closing Shop, here are the TL;DR bullet points we covered…
- Handcuffing first-round RBs has rarely paid off.
- More handcuff hits come from double-digit rounds than top-100 options.
- Target backups attached to discounted RB1 (RB1 going outside of the top-24 at the position).
- Higher-priced ambiguous backfields have rarely paid off seasonal RB1 scoring, but the lead back has had the scoring advantage.