Can You Gain an Edge in Fantasy Football by Collecting Entire Backfields?
We've all been there. You're at the car dealership trying to pick out your new whip and just can't decide between your two favorites. You've got it narrowed down to the practical Dad-compliant SUV, but you can't decide between a midnight black or pearl white exterior. So what do you do? Which one will you take home? Well -- both of course!
Wait? What? You're saying you've never done this before? But wouldn't it be awesome to have both so you could always match your car to your shoes? In fact, if it turns out that one is a lemon, you'll get lots of use from the other as your everyday vehicle. So why not do it?
Well, cost of course -- in particular, opportunity cost. You can't just spend every dime you have on transportation. Sure, you'll always have a sleek fleet of vehicles with this strategy, but it's a bit redundant when you have limited resources. Plus, it's tough to tell your kid he can't go to college because you spent the family savings on a convoy of Toyota Highlanders -- #DadLife.
We tend to do something similar in fantasy football. You draft a running back with a shaky role in his own offense and a few rounds later consider drafting his teammate to "lock down the entire backfield." The idea makes enough sense -- if you have both primary rushing options in a team's offense, you are protected for injuries and for poorly predicting the correct starter.
However, making this security-based move comes with a very obvious opportunity cost. On draft day, making the move will cost you a roster spot and a draft pick. But does the benefit of hedging your bet by locking down the entire backfield give you an edge, or are you stuck with an armada of mid-sized Dad-mobiles?
Which Backfields Do We Collect?
There is no real way to perfectly look back at the backfields we collected in previous drafts, so I have to admit that this study has a little subjectivity. But in any instance, I wanted to look at only teams with two running backs selected within FantasyFootballCalculator.com's PPR top 50 at the position.
It's a mostly arbitrary number but not entirely. The top 50 allows each of the 32 teams to likely have one running back represented while approximately half of the remaining teams will have a second running back included. Those would be the backfields we would be most interested in collecting. I took the liberty of grouping these backfields based on how closely the running back options were taken relative to one another.
I removed pure handcuff options from this analysis. Handcuffs are backup running backs who lack independent value so long as the team's primary running back is playing. Think James Conner behind Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh. The topic of handcuffs was thoroughly unriddled by JJ Zachariason last summer.
The guys we are looking at today are either complementary pieces of a running-back-by-committee situation or are members of an ambiguously defined backfield (also known as: "we just don't know!").
The Running Mates
Over the past two seasons, we have seen six backfields with major competition on draft day. The Bengals, Chargers, Jaguars, Lions, and Patriots all saw multiple top 50 running backs drafted within two rounds of each other in 2016 while the Seahawks did the same in 2017.
|Team||Player||Position Rank at Draft||ADP|
|CIN - 2016||Jeremy Hill||20||49.1|
|CIN - 2016||Giovani Bernard||24||57.7|
|DET - 2016||Ameer Abdullah||33||82.1|
|DET - 2016||Theo Riddick||41||99.8|
|JAX - 2016||Chris Ivory||34||84.1|
|JAX - 2016||T.J. Yeldon||39||93.7|
|LAC - 2016||Melvin Gordon||21||53.7|
|LAC - 2016||Danny Woodhead||22||53.7|
|NE - 2016||James White||37||90.9|
|NE - 2016||LeGarrette Blount||38||91.6|
|NE - 2016||Dion Lewis||49||130.2|
|SEA - 2017||Thomas Rawls||39||95.7|
|SEA - 2017||Eddie Lacy||43||106.6|
|SEA - 2017||C.J. Prosise||49||129.4|
Each of these situations is similar enough. You have a pair of (or three) interesting options on the same team who are being selected within two rounds of each other. In the case of the 2016 Chargers, the two players were selected with identical draft positions -- freaky.
How did it turn out for owners who chose to buy the whole ball of wax? First, I want to introduce a little methodology. In order to measure the success of owning the platoon, I went back and looked at Expert Consensus Ranks (ECR) each week via FantasyPros for each of these backfields to determine who was the highest recommended play. I tracked the score of that player during the week over the course of that team's 15 fantasy relevant games (Week 1 through Week 16, minus a bye week). This isn't a perfect recipe, admittedly, because you may not have always played the highest-ranked player -- which could've been a good thing or a bad thing for your fake teams -- but it at least gives us a general baseline with which to work.
Blount finished as the RB8 on the season. Even if you also drafted White, it's tough to contend that this is anything but a win from a pair being drafted in the eighth round. However, Dion Lewis was being drafted just a few rounds later and was a consideration for drafters wishing to secure the backfield. Would you have needed all three to eliminate doubts on draft day?
Similarly, things worked out just fine for the 2016 Chargers. Melvin Gordon was the recommended option in 14 out of 15 weeks thanks largely in part to a season-ending injury early in the year to Danny Woodhead. If a fantasy owner would have played the Chargers' ECR recommendation each week, they would have the RB8, as well. It is important to note, however, that it would have cost a considerable amount of equity to acquire both of these players as they were each a fifth-round option.
The 2016 Bengals, Lions, and Jaguars all produced very similar results to one another. Playing the ECR recommendation in each of those backfields yielded the RB25, RB27, and RB29, respectively. In Cincinnati, Jeremy Hill led the Bengals as the recommended play in 12 of 15 weeks. In Detroit, Ameer Abdullah went down in Week 2, which paved the way for Theo Riddick for the rest of the year. In Jacksonville, T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory traded lead-back status, per ECR, seven times over the course of the season.
The 2017 Seahawks were a revolving door. By the midpoint of the season, neither of these options were viable in lineups. The ECR recommended weekly play of Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, and C.J. Prosise combined for a mere 30.3 PPR points -- good enough for RB85. Not good.
In 2018, fantasy owners are drafting the Browns (Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson, and Nick Chubb), Packers (Jamaal Williams, Ty Montgomery, and Aaron Jones), and Titans (Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis) with similar amounts of uncertainty. So, what should we do with these backfields?
We'll answer that later. For now, let's take a look at backfields where guys are being taken just a little farther apart.
Hedging Your Bets
The next cluster of backfields to examine are those whose players were selected between 25 to 48 picks (three to four rounds) apart. In 2016, that group included the Browns and Titans. In 2017, it included the Ravens, Lions, Patriots, Eagles, and Buccaneers.
|Team||Player||Position Rank at Draft||ADP|
|CLE - 2016||Duke Johnson||27||66.9|
|CLE - 2016||Isaiah Crowell||43||106.9|
|TEN - 2016||DeMarco Murray||15||40.3|
|TEN - 2016||Derrick Henry||32||78.5|
|BAL - 2017
|BAL - 2017||Terrance West||36||86.8|
|DET - 2017||Ameer Abdullah||24||53.0|
|DET - 2017||Theo Riddick||33||83.0|
|NE - 2017||Mike Gillislee||27||65.3|
|NE - 2017||James White||42||102.7|
|NE - 2017||Rex Burkhead||44||113.4|
|PHI - 2017||LeGarrette Blount||37||91.9|
|PHI - 2017||Darren Sproles||46||116.3|
|TB - 2017||Doug Martin||22||49.0|
|TB - 2017||Jacquizz Rodgers||40||95.9|
Running backs in this cluster are often members of a committee, with one having a fairly significant comparable value.
The Titans backfield was easily the most successful platoon in this grouping. DeMarco Murray took the lead back job and never looked back. It turned out that Derrick Henry was simply overvalued. Murray was the preferred running back in ECR all 15 weeks and finished as the RB5 by himself.
The Browns and Lions combined to offer RB20 and RB19 performances respectively by using both backs.
The 2017 Patriots were a bit unusual. While you had to consider drafting three different running backs, it was actually another back, Dion Lewis, who emerged as the best option in New England. Lewis largely went undrafted as the 58th running back off the board. The ECR play for the Patriots was good enough for just the RB24 using Gillislee, White, and Burkhead. If you grabbed Lewis also, you'd have the RB19. Not a lot of reward for occupying four running backs on your roster all season.
The Eagles, Ravens, and Buccaneers were each really bad situations. Like the Patriots, their eventual lead back wasn't even in consideration as a draftable option. Jay Ajayi was the benefactor of a midseason trade from Miami to Philadelphia, relegating LeGarrette Blount. Alex Collins emerged from the Ravens' practice squad after being cut by Seattle. And Peyton Barber was the only semblance of a run game in Tampa Bay.
Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Tampa would go on to provide the RB53, RB62, and (also) RB53 respectively using the ECR recommendation of drafted options.
This year, we are seeing the following backfields with teammates drafted 25 to 48 spots apart: Chicago (Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen), Indianapolis (Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines), New England (Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead), New Orleans (Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram), and Washington (Derrius Guice and Chris Thompson). Atlanta and Oakland are close to qualifying, but they're just beyond the criteria I chose.
So, back to square one -- what do we do when faced with the option of buying multiple pieces of the same backfield?
In short, pick a guy. Don't buy the whole ball of wax. The results are scattered. Even if you knew that this year's Titans might unfold like the 2016 Chargers (where one back is eliminated from contention, giving all remaining work to the other), would it make sense to grab both of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis? I don't think so. Sure, it would be great to lock down the RB8 on the season, but at what cost? The pair are going exactly two rounds apart -- in the third and fifth -- and you really hope one of them emerges as a clear favorite to operate as the lead back, which would render your other pick (a pretty valuable one, at that) basically worthless.
In every positive outcome (3 out of 13 examples), the competition for workload was eliminated or marginalized, allowing a single running back to have an independently good season. The other player, in turn, became a waste. In the case of the 2016 Titans, Chargers, and Patriots, you got tremendous production from a single player, which was negated by the opportunity cost of acquiring the respective teammates which yielded little to no benefit.
Again, this is the best case scenario -- to have a single player do well while completely wasting another pick, sometimes a pretty valuable one. This is such a low-upside play that to do so is negligent in a game where the objective is to finish first out of 12 in most leagues. To win a fantasy league, you need to catch the positive end of variance. But you can't do that when you are playing it safe with a strategy that really isn't safe at all.
What is more likely, however, is that as long as there are multiple backs in contention in the same backfield, there is little upside to be found in each option individually. Six of the 13 examples in the past two years have featured platoons that would provide an end-of-year performance between the RB19 and RB29, which is essentially replacement-level value. Beyond that, 4 of the 13 examples yielded completely unusable production, with ECR-based committee totals of RB53 and worse.
Use the information you have available to pick the player most likely to return value, but stop wasting roster spots on insurance. Shoot your shot and don't be afraid to miss. Hedging is for guys with a garage full of Highlanders in assorted colors.