May 28, 2024

Running backs have been severely devalued in the NFL over the last 20+ years. But in fantasy football running backs are still essential to building a competitive fantasy team.

Many fantasy owners potentially overrate certain types of running backs. In particular, fantasy football owners tend to look for the next breakout running backs by looking to the rookies. But is it wise to entrust your fantasy squad to rookie running backs?

For example, in summer of 2023 guys like Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs were being drafted high in fantasy drafts. I thought this was a bad idea. I even talked about this on the Walterfootball.com podcast.

But multiple people said things to me like, “Those NFL teams would not have drafted those guys if they didn’t intent to use them.” Well, I didn’t buy that argument.

I never doubted Robinson’s or Gibbs’ talent—not at all—but I wasn’t convinced that putting significant fantasy draft capital into rookies was ideal. Back in the summer I could not decisively prove my suspicion. I didn’t have the data. But now, I do. Let’s look at the data.

 

How I Did This RB Study?

For this article, I went back to 2013. Between 2007 and 2012 the NFL underwent a massive evolution, becoming the super pass-heavy league that we now know. Most pre-2013 data seems irrelevant.

In my research I mostly focused on rookie running backs (2013 to 2022) being drafted in the single digit rounds of fantasy football drafts going into their rookie season (with a few relevant exceptions).

I examined each player’s fantasy football average draft position (ADP) using data from 12-team non-ppr scoring 16-round fantasy drafts from fantasyfootballcalculator.com and compared that to each player’s final fantasy ranking—using VBD ranking in ESPN default 12-team non-ppr scoring leagues.

 

Results: Rookie RBs Are Somewhat Overrated

Overall, the data does indeed seem to suggest that drafting rookie running backs high in fantasy drafts is likely unwise, but it’s not black-and-white. I examined 47 rookie running backs.

  • 17% (8 of 47) rookie running backs significantly outperformed their ADP
  • 13% (6 of 47) rookie running backs minimally outperformed their ADP
  • 10% (5 of 47) rookie running backs matched their ADP
  • 26% (12 of 47) rookie running backs minimally underperformed their ADP
  • 34% (16 of 47) rookie running back significantly underperformed their ADP

 

The Full Data

2022 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Breece Hall 2nd (36th) 5.03 (51st) 8th (89)
James Cook 2nd (63rd) 9.02 (98th) 10th (111)

 

2021 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Najee Harris 1st (24th) 1.12 1st (7)
Travis Etienne 1st (25th) n/a n/a [IR]
Javonte Williams 2nd (35th) 5.02 (50th) 4th (37)
Trey Sermon 3rd (88th) 6.05 (65th) n/a (311)

 

2020 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 1st (32nd) 1.08 4th (44)
D’Andre Swift 2nd (35th) 5.10 (58th) 4th (46)
Jonathan Taylor 2nd (41st) 3.12 (36th) 2nd (15)
J.K. Dobbins 2nd (55th) 6.10 (70th) 5th (55)
Antonio Gibson 3rd (66th) 9.09 (105th) 3rd (27)

 

2019 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Josh Jacobs 1st (24th) 3.09 (33rd) 2nd (18)
Miles Sanders 2nd (35th) 5.10 (58th) 2nd (21)
David Montgomery 3rd (73rd) 3.07 (31st) 5th (57)
Devin Singletary 3rd (74th) 7.12 (84th) 7th (73)
Darrell Henderson 3rd (69th) 8.07 (91st) n/a (291)

 

2018 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Saquon Barkley 1st (2nd) 1.07 1st (2)
Rashaad Penny 1st (27th) 8.03 (87th) 15th (171)
Sony Michel 1st (31st) 7.11 (83rd) 6th (51)
Nick Chubb 2nd (35th) 11.07 (127th) 3rd (27)
Ronald Jones 2nd (38th) 10.03 (111th) n/a (362)
Kerryon Johnson 2nd (43rd) 6.07 (67th) 7th (82)

 

2017 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Leonard Fournette 1st (4th) 3.02 (26th) 1st (11)
Christian McCaffrey 1st (8th) 2.11 (23rd) 3rd (31)
Dalvin Cook 2nd (41st) 3.03 (27th) 16th (192)
Joe Mixon 2nd (48th) 4.06 (42nd) 8th (88)
Alvin Kamara 3rd (67th) 12.08 (140th) 1st (6)
Samaje Perine 4th (114th) 11.07 (127th) 10th (113)

 

2016 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Zeke Elliot 1st (4th) 1.06 1st (2)
Derrick Henry 2nd (45th) 7.02 (74th) 9th (100)

 

2015 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Todd Gurley 1st (10th) 5.12 (60th) 2nd (13)
Melvin Gordon 1st (15th) 5.04 (52nd) 12th (142)
T.J. Yeldon 2nd (36th) 6.03 (63rd) 6th (65)
Ameer Abdullah 2nd (54th) 4.06 (42nd) 10th (117)
Tevin Coleman 3rd (73rd) 8.05 (89th) n/a (237)
Duke Johnson 3rd (77th) 9.06 (102nd) 8th (95)
David Johnson 3rd (86th) 11.01 (121st) 2nd (17)

 

2014 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Bishop Sankey 2nd (54th) 6.06 (66th) 9th (102)
Jeremy Hill 2nd (55th) 8.12 (96th) 2nd (17)
Carlos Hyde 2nd (57th) 8.08 (92nd) 13th (146)
Terrance West 3rd (93rd) 9.11 (107th) 8th (92)
Devonta Freeman 4th (103rd) 9.07 (103rd) 14th (168)

 

2013 NFL Draft
Player NFL
Draft
Fantasy ADP
(Overall)
Value Rd
(VBD Rk)
Giovani Bernard 2nd (37th) 4.12 (48th) 3rd (28)
Le’Veon Bell 2nd (48th) 5.03 (51st) 3rd (30)
Montee Ball 2nd (58th) 4.08 (44th) 10th (120)
Eddie Lacy 2nd (61st) 4.01 (37th) 1st (12)
Christine Michael 2nd (62nd) 12.03 (135th) n/a (353)