So far in this series I’ve looked at why running backs are important based on supply and demand, replaceability and predictability. Before digging in and reading this, I’d advise you to take a look at those articles to ensure we’re on the same page, as I’ll be referencing things from them throughout this one.
The predictability and replaceability articles showed us that elite running backs are valuable in fantasy football due to their separation in weekly usable performances. In addition, top preseason ranked running backs (top 24 and top 12, RB2s and RB1s), really don’t flop at that much higher of a rate than other positions do, contrary to popular belief.
As a result of those studies, the question we now should ask: What’s the cost associated in obtaining one of these highly-valued running backs, and is the cost worth any potential risk?
The Cost of a Fantasy Football Asset
You go to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread. Entering the store, you know you’re not going to pay 25 dollars for the loaf. You know, for the most part, how much bread is supposed to cost.
This idea is no different in fantasy football. Unless you’re in a league with only hipsters, you should have a pretty good idea of how much a player – your product – is going to cost entering a draft.
By cost, I’m talking about price tag. And by price tag, I mean the round and pick that you select a particular player. In auction leagues, this is just a simple dollar value.
When you enter a draft, you have a general idea of where a particular player is going to get selected because there are average draft position (ADP) resources everywhere. Even if you’ve never looked at ADP data, you’d probably still have a good idea because you’d more than likely be playing in a casual league, and casual leagues tend to draft best player available based on particular site rankings. In other words, if you’re doing a draft on ESPN.com with a bunch of newbs, the cost of each player is the default rankings that ESPN provides.
But anyone reading this article probably isn’t new to fantasy football, and they more than likely know that ADP data – based on real and mock drafts – exists. You know the general cost of players entering a fantasy draft.
Contrary to what would seem natural, costs in fantasy football don’t fluctuate much each year. Sure, you can pinpoint Jimmy Graham-like examples to prove otherwise, but really, fantasy football drafts follow the same pattern every single season.
The reason for this goes back to my supply and demand article, noting that, when a player is in higher demand (wide receivers and running backs), they have higher costs. This is why we see running backs and wide receivers leave the board so early in almost any pretend pigskin draft – you start two or three of them in each league, so teams need them more.
Through the years that I’ve been collecting ADP data, I’ve noticed obvious trends. You know, for instance, the first pick in any standard draft will probably be a running back. And if the guy holding the first selection decides to go elsewhere with it, you better prepare for at least six or seven backs to get scooped up in the first round.
And while you can come up with a league that you’re in that doesn’t follow the traditional average draft position path, remember that your individual circumstance doesn’t capture the hundreds of drafts that occur to create ADP data. Would you use one carry to verify a running back’s yards per carry average, or would you look at all of his carries? Exactly.
In fantasy, we’re concerned mostly about the starters in our lineups, or positions that we call QB1, RB1, RB2, WR1, WR2 and TE1. That lineup is a standard one, which typically includes a RB/WR flex or an additional WR spot. But to strengthen my point, I’ll act as though there’s no flex or additional wideout spot here.
How do these costs in fantasy change from position to position? Well, let’s think of this from a very high-level perspective. You’re in a 12-team league, and therefore, 12 quarterbacks, 24 running backs, 24 wide receivers and 12 tight ends are being started each week in total.
The worst hypothetical starters at each position in your league every week would be the 12th-best quarterback, the 24th-best running back and receiver and the 12th-best tight end. Clearly a tight end, for example, that’s not being started can jump into being a usable tight end (a top-12 one at the end of the week), but let’s assume each team has maximized the use of the best fantasy football assets here.
The question we should ask is, “Where were these players selected – what were their costs – during the fantasy football draft?” Because once we know that, we can start to manipulate our draft strategies not just based on position point differential (something that the commonly used Value Based Drafting does), but position scarcity.
To put this another way for you: Where are the QB1s being selected in a typical fantasy football draft? What about the RB1s and RB2s, or the WR1s and the WR2s?
Again, this changes from league to league, but not nearly as dramatically as you’d probably think. The following table shows where each of these positions are drafted in a standard, 12-team league draft. To keep things concise, I’ve removed the tight end position.
|Position||Average Draft Slot|
The chart shows that quarterbacks are typically selected between the ninth pick in first round all the way to the fifth pick in the eighth round. The top running back is almost always selected with the first overall pick, while the 24th one is selected in the middle of the fifth. And at wide receiver, you see a shift compared to running back of about half of a round.
Feel free to go back and look at any standard draft you participated in last season. The numbers will roughly match up. You know the cost of a player entering the draft.
Average draft position (cost) information is underrated in fantasy football, because most people don’t realize that it tells you more than just where a player is being selected. It also tells you where replacement-level players are getting picked up, too.
Fantasy owners typically go about a draft selection in similar ways. First, they look at who’s available, and create a consideration set of players. They then calculate, using season-long projections, which players among the consideration set are most valuable. To do this, they will look at what’s called a “baseline” player at a position, and see how much better the player within the consideration set is at said position versus the baseline. Next, the player with the largest variance to the baseline player is the one that should be drafted.
Sometimes, savvy owners will know that, even when their value analysis points at a particular player, they can wait because that player isn’t supposed to be drafted for another round or two. And they know this based on ADP data (that’s the relationship people use ADP for).
While the latter strategy is crucial in fantasy football, the former can be flawed on many levels. First, as I’ve noted throughout this series, season-long projections will often not tell the entire story about a player. But second and more importantly, when owners compare to a baseline player, they’re not looking at where that player is being selected.
Pretend that the difference between Drew Brees and his baseline player (which, I should add, is often times the worst hypothetical starter in your league, or the QB12 in this case) is 150 points. Now imagine the difference between DeMarco Murray and his baseline player is 100 points. Many owners would select Drew Brees because his variance is larger.
I wouldn’t. At least not just yet.
What if Brees’ baseline player was being drafted in Round 10, while Murray’s was in Round 5? In other words, if we assume you’re selecting Murray or Brees in Round 2, what if this “variance” in points between Brees and his baseline stretched over eight rounds, while Murray to his extended over just three?
This, though not instantly apparent, is opportunity cost. This is why fantasy football isn’t just about the players you choose, but the players you don’t choose as well.
Opportunity cost is simply defined as the cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action. If you draft Drew Brees, what’s your opportunity cost? Well, it’s the chance to have a player like Murray. And now, as a result, your second running back spot is a Round 3 guy at best, a player who is that much closer to being just a simple replacement.
Why Running Backs Matter
We now have two concepts: cost (average draft position) and opportunity cost. We know the price tags on certain players (and positions), and because of that, we can determine what is being lost when you decide to choose that player, or go with the alternative.
Since this series is on running backs, let’s examine what that means for that specific position, shall we?
As I talked through earlier, the first running back will almost always leave the board with the first overall pick. The RB12 – a low-end RB1 – will usually be selected at the end of Round 2. Again, these numbers aren’t exact, but they’re relatively close to what you’d see in an average draft.
The top-12 running backs – RB1s entering a fantasy draft – are off the board by the end of the second round. Of course one fantasy owner is going to value a player differently, but let’s just pretend that every fantasy owner's rankings for the top-12 runners is fairly similar (which is usually the case anyway, as larger ranking differentiation occurs during the latter portions of a draft).
We know the cost of an RB1 - it’s a first- or second-round pick. We also know now, because of these costs, that the opportunity cost of not selecting a running back in the first two rounds is a hypothetical RB1, all things being equal.
If a fantasy owner opts to go the wide receiver, quarterback or tight end route early in the fantasy draft, that owner is giving up the opportunity for a preseason-ranked RB1. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, because preseason ranked RB2s, RB3s or even RB4s can still finish the season as an RB1.
But what happens to the folks who decide to not get a running back in the first two rounds of a fantasy draft (opportunity cost alert)? Most likely, those fantasy owners are now shopping for a back in Rounds 3, 4, and 5, snagging their starters “hopefully” by the end of Round 5.
Rounds 3, 4 and 5, as I showed earlier, consist of the preseason ranked 13th through 24th running backs. You would expect the RB13 to go shortly after the RB12 (11th pick in the second round of a 12-team draft), while the RB24 would leave the board in Round 5 (7th pick in the fifth round of a 12-team draft).
At that point in the draft – the middle of Round 5 – the majority of owners have their running backs, while some, including myself at times, will select three running backs within the first five rounds. Let’s assume, however, that pick 5.07 is when the final team in a 12-team draft gets their second running back. It's really not that much of a stretch.
This means that anyone who didn’t select a running back in the first two rounds is going to have to obtain their RB1 and RB2 in Rounds 3 through 5.
I’m going to continue to use 2013 as the example here, especially because this past season was one where even the most casual fantasy football owners started to notice the lack of need to snag a running back early in a pretend pigskin draft.
Below is a chart that compares the preseason RB1-12 to RB13-24 by usable weeks:
If you failed to draft a running back in the first two rounds of your draft, your opportunity cost is essentially the left column (RB1-12) of this chart. You failed to get one of the elite running backs last year, which I showed in previous articles were the most valuable players in fantasy (and are every year, as long as you can obtain one). Your RB1 also had a 25% chance of hitting the floor of a preseason RB1-12. Remember, I'm judging fantasy success on weekly consistency, not year-end results.
It’s pretty clear that having a running back preseason ranked 1st to 12th gives you an advantage compared to one ranked 13th to 24th. That shouldn’t really be a huge surprise, though I know there are fantasy owners who may be a little shocked at the variance.
Let me continue to note that these preseason rankings can and will change from person to person. It’s impossible to capture true ADP data based on how every single human being playing fantasy football will draft, but in general, these are the results you found in 2013. And those results, if you look back to previous years, are similar, if not stronger.
So if you’re not getting a running back in the first two rounds (RB1-12), that means you’re getting either a quarterback, wide receiver or tight end. But because the only real tight end that people are going to be drafting next season this early is Jimmy Graham, I’ll leave that position for a separate discussion. Let’s just focus on wide receiver and quarterback.
I’ve shown that the costs of a wide receiver range from pick 1.06 in a 12-team league all the way to pick 6.01, with the 12th wide receiver being selected at 3.08. Moreover, because we’re talking about not selecting a running back in the first two rounds, I should mention that the eighth or ninth-ranked wide receiver is usually drafted at the end of the second. If you’re not getting a back with one of your first two picks, one of your selections, assuming you’re getting a wide receiver, will be at least a top-nine preseason ranked wideout.
This is where things get interesting. After conducting this positional research a couple of years ago, I found something that I didn’t expect to see: The need for an elite wide receiver. You see, when you look at these first two rounds, the top eight or nine wide receivers usually are producing high-end usable weeks at season’s end, more so than the top running backs are when you compare to the rest of the position.
As a result, you’d ideally want to take a wide receiver in the first two rounds of a fantasy draft given their performance versus their peers throughout a typical fantasy football season. Even if we look at last season, you can see why. If we assume eight wide receivers were selected in the first two rounds of a 12-team draft, that gives you roughly the following 2013 receivers: Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson.
Of those wideouts, Julio Jones finished with the fewest usable weeks (just five because he was hurt), while the rest finished with eight or more. And since we’re in the game of finding value – players who outperform others at their position – having eight or more usable wide receiver weeks put you in the top-14 wide receiver range last season.
At a position that’s incredibly volatile (that’s for another discussion), having a plug-and-play wide receiver like ones you'll find in the first and second round produces an incredible advantage in fantasy football.
The unfortunate part, as I showed earlier, is that there’s an opportunity cost of going after two wide receivers in the first two rounds, and that’s the opportunity of having the elite running backs – guys who I’ve shown are the best assets in fantasy. This is why I typically will get a running back in Round 1, and follow it up with one of the consistent wide receivers in Round 2.
You can now sort of start shuffling this idea around in your head. If you get, say, Drew Brees in Round 2 after selecting a running back in Round 1, you now aren’t going to be selecting one of the consistent wide receivers. And if you get a wide receiver in Round 1 and a quarterback in Round 2, say goodbye to the higher probability of hitting at running back, the scarcest position of all.
In addition to this, you have to keep in mind how points “stretch” across rounds. If you’re still a subscriber to year-long statistics, you can’t assume that the variance between a top player versus the replacement-level one is the end determination as to who you should draft.
I talked through an example like this earlier, but pretend Peyton Manning is being selected at 1.09 next year and is projected to score 120 more points than the 12th-ranked quarterback who’s being selected at 8.05. That means that each time you miss out on a quarterback up until that 8.05 spot, you’re losing out on 120 points divided by the number of picks between Manning and that quarterback.
Since quarterback starters (and tight end ones) are drafted two to three rounds later than running backs and wide receivers due to supply and demand principles, the denominator in that formula is larger. In other words, this “formula” (points divided by the number of picks until the baseline player is drafted), which is essentially opportunity cost, favors running backs and wide receivers dramatically because they’re being selected at a much faster rate.
This doesn’t even include the fact that tight ends and quarterbacks are more readily available off the waiver wire, and that the quarterback position is the most predictable week to week, allowing you to stream the position. This very basic way of looking at average draft position allows you to see that quarterbacks are devalued, while running backs and wide receivers are needed.
And because running back production in the first two rounds of your fantasy draft allows for a much higher probability of “hitting” at the running back slot in your lineup, the running back position becomes important, though top wide receivers are more usable each week compared to their peers.
So far in this series, I’ve only really looked at the top running backs, as these types of backs are the ones fantasy owners are being turned off by. But before I close, I want to make a note about late-round draft selections, and the idea that a fantasy owner can simply wait and “load up on running backs” in their draft, hoping one of them will hit.
Here’s my main issue with that philosophy: I, a fantasy owner selecting multiple running backs early in my fantasy draft, am also drafting a multitude of running backs late in my fantasy drafts. In other words, by the time you’re grabbing your “hopeful” breakouts, I’m drafting the same position, doing the same thing. I’m building depth – depth that I’ll be able to trade to you, the owner who failed to recognize the true value of a fantasy football running back early on in the draft.
Closing This Series
The hope of this series wasn’t to tell you exactly where to draft a running back in fantasy football, and it also wasn’t to say that other concepts and ideas come draft time are wrong (well, some of them are).
Rather, I just wanted to give you information that makes you think about your draft day decisions, especially if you’re one of those people who don’t want to draft an early-round running back at all next year.
To summarize, I showed that running backs are in higher demand in fantasy football – you have to spend a higher cost because of lineup restrictions and general rules of the game.
I then went through the replaceability aspect of things, explaining that, if you have a top-tier running back, you have the most important piece to winning a fantasy football championship. That player at that position is giving you more of an edge than any other player at any other position.
Following the replaceability article up, I went on to describe that obtaining that top running back isn’t nearly as difficult as people think. The position, in general and even in 2013 when running backs seemed to slump like we’ve never seen before, doesn’t “flop” substantially more than other positions in fantasy football. That, and because of replaceability, we know that there’s incredible reward – reward you can only get by selecting a running back early.
And finally, in this piece, I described probably the most important aspect of fantasy football: market value. There’s opportunity cost involved in every decision we make during a draft, whether it be a snake or an auction one. We know what this opportunity cost is because we know what the cost of particular assets are.
As a result, we found that elite wide receivers are awesome to have, but come at a cost. If you were to only get a wide receiver with your first couple of picks, you’ve now missed out on the opportunity of not only having a back with a higher probability of succeeding, but one that has a chance to be a fantasy football diamond.
You can pretend as though running backs don’t matter in fantasy football because the game on the field is changing. Or you can realize that this numbers-driven game we play – fantasy football itself – is consistent. It doesn’t change. The standards say that you’ll always be starting two running backs, two wide receivers and one quarterback. You’ll always know that the quarterback and tight end positions are more replaceable, and have less value due to supply and demand and market factors.
Running backs still matter. Running backs are still valuable. Don’t let the game fool you.