NFL

Fantasy Football: Can Waiver-Wire Running Backs Really Replace Early-Round Picks?

With the running back position getting deeper by the year, what do the numbers suggest about avoiding backs early in the draft?
  It betrayed Isildur to his death...
  And some things that should not have been forgotten...were lost.
  History became legend...legend became myth.
  And for two and a half thousand years the Ring passed out of all knowledge.
  Until, when chance came, it ensnared a new bearer...


...you.

Oh, by the way, the Ring in our scenario is the ZeroRB strategy, not an actual ring. And it's been closer to two and a half years rather than two and a half thousand.

Also, your name probably isn't Isildur. Though that would be elite if it was. Even though Isildur's decision to take the Ring as weregild changed the entire fate of Middle-earth.

Anyway.

This is all just a theatrical way of saying that it looks like meat the ZeroRB strategy -- passing over running backs early in your drafts to focus on wide receivers and top-tier tight ends and quarterbacks -- is back on the menu for fantasy drafters in 2018, based on, among other things, the depth at the wide receiver position.

And, hey, maybe you never let ZeroRB out of your sight, and it's possible the strategy carried you to a fantasy championship or two this past season. You could've foregone early running backs in 2017 and ridden Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt to a fantasy title. You could've added Jamaal Williams to your team down the stretch.

However, grabbing league-winning fantasy running backs from the waiver wire has been a low-percentage bet in recent years. Is it getting easier?

No, No It Isn't

("It isn't midday yet. The days are growing darker.")

Okay, I'll stop with the Lord of the Rings stuff for a bit. Let's get down to the issue at hand: successfully pulling off the ZeroRB approach requires finding running backs either later in the draft or from the waiver-wire.

Finding running backs off the waiver wire is a complicated part of playing fantasy football, and we have to be transparent and honest with ourselves about how tricky it can be. We don't win fantasy titles by pretending like our pickups scored more points than they actually did.

So what I've done is collected data from FleaFlicker.com to see which running backs were added at the highest rate during the 2017 season. That means I tracked the biggest single-week influxes of additions, and then I tracked how those players did in the short-term after being added. I did a lot more, as well, but that's the heart of this study.

Because some waiver-wire claims are little more than speculation about a potential bigger role down the road, I've limited this study to the top 30 single-week additions, roughly the top two adds per week during the season. Plus, I limited this to additions prior to Week 15 to give us at least three fantasy-relevant games to study (Weeks 14, 15, and 16).

The Precious

Surely you all recall when Tarik Cohen was 2017's must-have waiver-wire add. It felt like if you didn't have him on your teams, you were going to be toast. Fantasy owners always overreact to something from the first week or two. In fact, the Chicago Bears' pass-catching back was 2017's most-added running back in a single week (entering Week 2).

Kerwynn Williams was second on the list, also in Week 2, corresponding to David Johnson's Week 1 injury.

Having two obvious additions so early in the year should be a big win for those who didn't spend early draft capital on running backs.

But in the first four weeks after the additions (so Weeks 2 through 5 of the 2017 NFL season for these two), Cohen and Wiliams combined for only two top-36 PPR performances (among eight total games played). Yikes. Both of those belonged to Cohen, by the way.

For a visual, here are the results for the top-30 single-week adds, starting with two weeks prior to the addition influx (Week -2 in the chart), through the fourth week after the add (Week 4).

That means for Cohen, for example, we're seeing a blank in Week -2 because that was "Week 0" of the NFL season. His Week 1 PPR rank shows in the "Week -1" column. His Week 2 rank appears in the "Week 1" column (because it was the first week you could've played him if you picked him up entering Week 2 of the 2017 season).

Green cells indicate a top-12 rank. Yellow is for RB13 through RB24. Red is worse than RB36.

2017 PPR RB Finishes

So you got two good performances from Cohen after you spent your top claim or a big portion of your free agency auction budget (FAAB). That's a win -- most likely. However, from Week 4 through 16 of the 2017 season, Cohen produced just one other top-24 performance (RB14 in Week 11). Ugh.

We need to think long and hard about Cohen's true value in 2017. Were the two weeks of top-15 production for your waiver investment worth it? If so, it was a good pickup. If you handicapped yourself for future pickups by moving to the back of the waiver list, by overspending your FAAB, or by making deals with the assumption that Cohen would be a weekly starter, then maybe he wasn't a great pickup.

Conversely, Kerwynn Williams was a clear dud pickup. There's no arguing that. He did wind up with three top-36 weeks, but those came in Weeks 13, 14, and 16. Maybe he helped you in your flex spot then, however, and adding Williams at that point would be a completely different story.

Separating the two addition periods for Williams should matter when we really try to evaluate what it takes to land a reliable back from the waiver wire.

And I'm not trying to claim that waiver-wire backs are always bad. They're not. In fact, 13 of the top 15 backs averaged top-36 PPR performances over the four weeks after the pickup. That's actually promising.

Last season, 11 of the top 15 backs did that. In 2016, that number was 10. That's not quite so great.

Now, let's span out a bit and look at how this year's class impacts the overall numbers for the top-30, single-week waiver-wire running backs since 2010. That's an eight-year sample of roughly the top two adds per week at the position.

The table here factors out bye weeks and games in which a player didn't accrue a single fantasy point.

PPR Ranks 2010-2017

Okay, so, let's focus on that top row. The top row ("RB1 - RB12") shows us that 37.4% of the top-30 waiver-wire pickups finished as a top-12 fantasy back the week prior to being added. That makes sense for a few reasons: fantasy football managers can add backs after a big week, backs can break out when the starter gets hurt, or a back gets a bigger-than-expected workload, for example.

In the first week after adding these players, just 22.6% of games were top-12 performances. An additional 23.5% of the performances (so 46.1% total) were RB24 performances or better.

That's not bad, yet it is just four percentage points higher than the likelihood of spending waiver capital on a back who produces worse than an RB3 in 12-team leagues. That means you're about equally likely to get an RB2 week as you are to get a week that tanks your team.

That continues into the second week after the pickup: there's a 40.2% chance of getting a dud performance and a 40.7% chance to get an RB2 performance. Then the dud numbers bump up, while the start-worthy numbers trend down.

The big variable in all of this is relative cost to acquire these assets. With these waiver-wire backs, you're spending a waiver claim and maybe get two top-24 showings from a running back. That, in theory, allows you to draft a top-flight tight end and quarterback as well as load up on receivers if you're practicing the ZeroRB method. So that's not awful, but finding consistent top-level production from a running back off the wire just doesn't happen often.

Next, we'll factor in missed games and byes because, well, we probably should -- just to see what happens when you add a running back and have to deal with bye weeks, injuries, or weeks where he doesn't see the field. We'll also just make the cutoffs more drastic: was a player a top-24 performer, or was he worse than a flex-level option?

After all, I'm not here to sugarcoat this. I'm here to see what happens when we're adding backs from the wire. If relying on them to save our season is a low-probability strategy, then it's worth knowing.

PPR RB Ranks 2

We're picking up these backs after their best weeks; the past data just shows us that we're missing the boat more often than not.
We've got roughly a 30% chance to get a top-24 showing after the first week of adding these backs.

I'm just going to let that marinate.

From here, I'm actually going to transition from using weekly ranks and look at things from a points-scored perspective. This will allow for a broader view on performance when we're dealing with bye weeks and late-season performers with the waiver-wire backs, backs who potentially benefit from playing their games during thinner weeks of the season.

In recent seasons, the weekly RB12 has scored roughly 16.9 PPR points, so the top cutoff for us will be a more generous 16.5 points for a pseudo RB1 weekly performance. The RB24 scores about 11.5 points, so we'll make the RB2 cutoff 11.5 points. To be a top-36 back, players need about 7.8 points, so we'll drop that even more to 7.5.

Here's how that looks when we examine waiver-wire running back performance after pickups. This sample includes the 150 backs who make up the top-30 single-week adds from 2013 through 2017. Naturally, the sample will get thinner as we trend toward Week 15 in the chart. Only backs added in Week 2 will have 15 weeks of post-addition production in this sample.

Waiver-Wire RB Area Chart

Again, we can see this another way. There's an RB12 spike before the addition occurs and then, on average, performance below the RB24 range.

If we could pick up these guys and play them before their breakouts, we'd be able to benefit and potentially sell high. The data, though, says that we miss out on the best weeks to play them and then what happens after the addition is pretty bleak, generally.

But How Does That Compare to Drafting Running Backs Early?

That's my favorite quote from Samwise Gamgee, by the way. Right after he fails to save Frodo from Shelob in the third film. And then Gorbag and Shagrat find Frodo and take him back to the tower of Cirith Ungol.

And then you realize that, right at that moment, you can't really replace the production from top running backs very easily.

Let's move on to all running backs -- not just waiver-wire adds. This is something that I haven't dug into in the past when doing this study, so I'm excited to see what happens when we compare drafted backs to undrafted, waiver-wire backs.

Here is how running backs compared in games played from 2013 to 2017. I've divided them, for now, into four groups.

The first comprises the top-30 running backs drafted in a season, via FantasyFootballCalculator. The second (late-round running backs) includes backs drafted outside the top-30 in average draft position (ADP). The third is the top-12 in-season pickups, and the fourth is the top-30 running back pickups over our five-year sample.

For the backs with a draft cost, we're counting every game played from Week 1 through Week 16, meaning injuries are essentially forgiven. For the waiver-wire guys, we're excluding games before the pickup occurred, meaning games before the boost in opportunity are forgiven.

Unsurprisingly, early-round running backs have the highest return on these benchmarks. These backs consist of the first- and second-round rushers (it's generally up to the end of the sixth round before the 30th running back is selected in a 12-team draft). That means the Top-30 ADP group includes some fifth-, sixth-, and possibly seventh-round backs who don't necessarily profile as obvious draft picks.

If you aren't drafting fantasy rushers by the end of the sixth or seventh round, however, the data pretty much suggests that you may as well not draft backs late and just try to find similar production from the waiver wire. In that instance, you're just avoiding the guessing game until a situation arises for a running back to take on a bigger workload.

Still, isolate out the top-12 pickups and the top-30 via ADP, and it's still clear that you're better off with an early-round back than a waiver-wire back over the larger sample. In that instance, too, we're still accounting for the running backs taken from rounds three, four, five, and a little beyond. It's not just comparing the first-round backs to all waiver pickups.

Let's take it a step further and isolate the top-12 drafted running backs over the past five seasons. In theory, this will help us see the probabilities when we -- by design or accident -- don't draft a running back in the first two rounds.

Top-12 Comparison

This looks like a chart you'd see at the eye doctor.

Here, it's showing us that it's more likely -- over our five-year sample -- that a top-12 back in the draft will net you a top-36 performance more than 80% of the time when he plays.

The 64.1% chance of getting an RB24 performance is higher than even an RB36 performance from a top waiver back.

Top-12 backs from the draft have RB12-caliber weeks more than 40% of the time when they play: 42.3% to be more precise.

Let's pause on that 42.3% chance of an RB12 (16.5-point week) week. Why? Well, we know already from this table that 22.4% of the weeks from top-12 waiver backs produced at least 16.5 points, but surely that's higher in the first week or two, right? We can just start them when the situation dictates it and then cut bait when the starter gets healthy again, yeah?

Nope. In line with what we examined already -- when looking solely at the weekly ranks of these backs -- it's not the case.

Only 8 of the 34 top-12 backs who played the week after being picked up scored at least 16.5 PPR points (23.5%). If we make the cutoff 11.5 points, the numbers jump to 15 of 34 (44.1%). And then we already know things trend downward -- or stagnate -- from there after the pickup occurs.

It's just safe to say that waiver-wire backs -- as a whole (so excluding the anecdotal outliers) -- can't live up to early-round backs in terms of upside.

But Now How About We Factor in Missed Games?

Let's do it. This is a big part of avoiding early running backs. Drafting David Johnson last year easily could've ruined your team because he played in only one game.

Let's bake that into the analysis.

We're looking, now, at Week 1 through Week 16 from our five-year sample of 2013 through 2017. That means that when a first-round rusher misses games, he's going to be penalized. Surely, this'll even the field.

First, though, we'll just hone in on the difference between viewing a top-12 or top-30 drafted running back in terms of only games played against the whole season (which helps account for missed games from injuries).

Top ADP Backs

Exactly what we'd expect. When you factor in missed games, the rates drop, but you've still got a 48.6% chance to get 11.5 PPR points from a top-12 running back, even when you embrace missed games.

Here's how those numbers look when compared to waiver-wire additions. We'll further split up the top-30 backs into the top 12 and the backs who round out the top 30 (so RB13 through RB30 via average draft cost).

RB12, RB13-30, Pickups

Hey, now. Hey, now. That's something.

When you account for absent games from backs who aren't inside the top-12 in ADP but who are still costing us early-round picks (again, roughly before round seven), they have worse numbers than top backs from the wire.

However, the top, best, or most-likely-to-hit waiver backs (the 12 who earn the most adds in a season) still don't offer quite the upside that the top-12 backs do. That's true even when you look at things from a full-season perspective and bake in the risk of taking backs early in the draft.

This just means that the best running backs in this sample are the first backs off the board in drafts, those with few offensive limitations and role concerns.

But once you get outside the running back tier that includes those with apparent guaranteed roles, you may as well just try to find the right back off the wire than to draft a back in the middle of the draft.

Takeaways

This all comes down to expectations. If you omit running backs and only need fringe-level starters to fill the gaps on your team because your receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks are scoring beaucoup points each and every week, then you can still find viable fantasy backs from the waiver wire. I don't think that's particularly groundbreaking.

But if you're of the mindset that you can find true RB1-caliber backs from the waiver wire, the data just doesn't really bear that out. Even RB2s are relatively unlikely when you factor in competing with 11 other owners (depending on your league size) for the same backs.

The data does -- to me -- suggest that taking a chance on first- and second-round running backs is worth the risk, given their upside to produce a high rate of top-12 and top-24 weeks, compared to all other backs. If you miss out on the top-flight fantasy backs, though, you may as well just load up on receivers and tight ends instead.