Fantasy Running Back Value, Part One: The Current Misconception

Le'Veon Bell's fantasy season was much better than his numbers show.

I’ve written an evergreen book that looks at fantasy football strategy, not in terms of how to value players each year, but how and where to draft certain positions. The conclusion of the book is simple, but the road in getting there is perhaps a little more complex: Quarterbacks are inherently devalued in fantasy football, and because of a number of factors, they can – and should – be drafted late in fantasy football drafts.

When I introduce the idea to a fantasy football player who seems against it, the standard response is, “No way, the NFL is a pass-first beast, and quarterback is the most important position.”

Yes, the NFL is a pass-happy machine nowadays, and quarterbacks are the most valuable piece to a team’s offense. But this is fantasy football, and the rules are numbers-based, not football-based.

As a result of current NFL trends, fantasy footballers seem to think that quarterbacks are more important and running backs don’t hold the same value as they did during LaDainian Tomlinson’s prime. Maybe the former is a little unfair, but the latter certainly isn't. Enthusiasts will cite flop rates – players who were drafted high and didn’t finish the season as a top fantasy asset. They’ll look at Peyton Manning’s record-breaking season as proof, too. It’s as if they’ll do anything, pushing away very common sense principles, to make it seem like their game, fantasy football, is just like the NFL.

But it’s not.

Questioning the Generally Accepted Ways of Evaluation

The majority of fantasy owners understand the very basic concept of “value” in fantasy football. Back in the day, fantasy football legend Joe Bryant created Value Based Drafting (VBD), noting, “The value of a player is determined not by the number of points he scores, but by how much he outscores his peers at his particular position.”

You shouldn’t care how many points Peyton Manning scores versus how many Jamaal Charles tallies. Instead, you need to worry about how many fantasy points Manning posts compared to other quarterbacks, as this is where value is formulated.

The idea of VBD has morphed and changed through the years, and serves as the basis of fantasy football evaluation. Without the concept, I’d argue that we wouldn’t be able to move forward with new ones.

However, there’s a problem with the majority of folks who use VBD as an evaluation tool. Typically – almost always, actually – in-depth fantasy owners are using cumulative statistics to prove whether or not a player or position was or will be valuable in a given season. And when you do this, you often times make false conclusions.

Let’s take Andy Dalton’s 2013 season as a quick, introductory example. The Bengals’ passer finished with the fifth-most points at the quarterback position, scoring 295.3 standard fantasy points. Dalton was just eight points from being the third-best option, and finished 30 points ahead of the lowest QB1 in a 12-team league (the 12th-ranked quarterback), Ben Roethlisberger.

Dalton finished the marathon in fifth place, but it certainly wasn’t a flawless journey.

In fact, in his 15 fantasy-relevant games (Week 17 isn’t worthwhile to analyze because the majority of leagues are finished at that point in the season), Dalton finished with a weekly top-12 quarterback ranking just six times. The reason for his high season-end total is because five of his six top-12 finishes were top-5 ones, skewing his cumulative fantasy point total.

But when people analyze his season, most will assume that Andy Dalton played like a high-end QB1. And they’ll use his season-ending total to formulate incorrect value conclusions.

This same type of thought process has forced fantasy players to this false belief that the running back position is overrated. Folks will look at pre-season rankings, compare them to end-of-season results, throw up their arms and say, “Welp, I’m not drafting a running back in the first two rounds next year!”

I’m afraid they’re failing to realize the true value of a fantasy football running back – a value that is completely, utterly different than what it is to a real NFL roster.

What This Series is About

It’s the fantasy football offseason, which, from a writing perspective, is my favorite time of year. It’s not just about start/sit decisions, but deeper thinking and understanding about how fantasy football works and what wins.

Pretend pigskin doesn’t just come down to a simple value analysis. Sure, you can win by using a value above replacement model only, but like any game that is partially out of your control, this one involves a deep understanding of the many factors that impact it on a weekly basis.

This series of “Fantasy Running Back Value” will show you what these factors are, and why the running back position is, whether you want to believe it now or not, still the most important one in fake football.

I’ve narrowed down the “factors” to four separate buckets, each designating a different article in the series:

1. Supply and Demand
2. Position Replaceability
3. Position Predictability
4. Market Value

If you’ve read any of my strategy pieces in the past, some of these topics will look familiar. The difference, this time, is that the focus won’t be on the quarterback position, but one that’s become increasingly controversial in pretend pigskin over the last couple of seasons: running back.

Consider this a really lame teaser, I suppose. But get ready, because over the next month, your mind will be blown (alright, maybe that’s a little too dramatic.)