Understanding Running Back Bust Rates in Fantasy Football

Everyone knows the running back position is volatile from year to year, but math still dictates a need for early-round running back choices.

Over the last – I don’t know – forever, fantasy football owners have used early-round draft choices on running backs and receivers. The reason for this is pretty straightforward: they’re the only two positions in standard leagues where you start multiple players, which drives up the need in acquiring them.

The problem these days is that NFL quarterbacks tend to spread the ball around more, and offensive coordinators are frequently opting to use a running back-by-committee approach. As a result, fantasy owners fear less dominance at the positions, and are approaching the game from a different perspective, one that involves snagging an elite quarterback and tight end early before going after running backs and wide receivers.

Especially with running backs, the current thought is that these early-round picks “bust” more frequently than a sure thing at tight end and quarterback (Peyton Manning and Jimmy Graham, for instance). While this is mostly true, it’s also kind of irrelevant without context. Let me show you what I mean.

Bust Rates Among Running Backs

The term “bust” is thrown around loosely, similar to the dreaded “sleeper” in fantasy football. To be clear, I don’t care how you define bust, I just don’t think the average fantasy owner thinks about the term properly.

The exercise we’ll run through is pretty clear-cut: we’ll look at average draft position (ADP) data in preseason form, and compare it to the postseason results. I snagged the data from, and only looked at drafts that occurred after August 1st in a given season to ensure the data was relevant. In addition, the ADP information is for 12-team, PPR leagues, and stretches over the last five seasons.

After gathering the data and relating it directly to the results of a particular player (e.g. Adrian Peterson was the top running back going into last season, but finished 11th at the position), I grouped the players into tiers. In this particular article, we’ll look at running backs. Any running back that was preseason ranked 1st through 6th was in a tier, 7th through 12th was in the next, 13th through 18th came after, and so on. These equate to high-end RB1s, low-end RB1s, high-end RB2s, low-end RB2s, etc. in 12-team leagues.

In total, eight tiers were created. The next thing I wanted to do was see how these tiers performed. Did a RB1-6 (Tier 1) often finish as an RB1 (ranked 1st through 12th) in a 12-team fantasy league? How often did that type of running back finish outside, say, the top 48 at the position?

The results are below for preseason running backs ranked 1st through 24th.

RB1 to RB6RB7 to RB12RB13 to RB18RB19 to RB24
Median Rank1117.520.521.5
Finish as RB153.33%46.67%30.00%20.00%
Finish as RB226.67%13.33%30.00%33.33%
Finish as RB310.00%23.33%13.33%13.33%
Finish as RB43.33%3.33%16.67%20.00%
Worse than RB46.67%13.33%10.00%13.33%

By no surprise, running backs who are listed as top ones entering a draft have yielded the best after-season results. And yes, those numbers aren’t pretty. Essentially, the top-six running back you’re drafting has just a 53.33% chance of finishing as a top-12 running back (RB1), and the median rank among this group is a measly 11.

But what’s interesting is the clear dip in median rank and hit rate once you reach RB2 runners. In traditional snake drafts, these are the backs being selected in rounds three through five. Really, the running backs in the RB13 through RB18 group really don’t differ a whole lot versus the RB19 through RB24 group, aside from having more upside in becoming a true RB1. But in total, you can see how dramatic the drop is in potential as you move down this list. You should expect that – there’s a reason these players are being selected after the top guys.

What happens next is huge.

RB25 to RB30RB31 to RB36RB37 to RB42RB43 to RB48
Median Rank40.54037Over 50
Finish as RB116.67%0.00%10.00%3.33%
Finish as RB220.00%20.00%10.00%20.00%
Finish as RB310.00%26.67%26.67%20.00%
Finish as RB410.00%20.00%13.33%3.33%
Worse than RB443.33%33.33%40.00%53.33%

The RB25 through RB30 group sees a pretty massive decline compared to the tiers before it, and after this tier, things get Jessie-Spano-on-caffeine-pills bad. A total of four RB1s have come from the running backs ranked 31st through 48th over the past five seasons, good for a rate of just 4.44%. In addition, 42.22% of these players end up finishing outside the top 48 at the position. Yikes.

To put this into context, the 30th running back off the board this year according to (drafts concluded after June 1st) is Pierre Thomas. Notable players being selected after Thomas include Stevan Ridley, Knowshon Moreno, Steven Jackson, Lamar Miller, Danny Woodhead, Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Jackson.

There’s a very, very small chance one of those players becomes an RB1 this year.

It’s not just that, though – only a little over 16% of those backs will become full-blown RB2s in your fantasy league in 2014. Let that sink in. The way to ensure you obtain just an RB2, without the context of player evaluation, would be to draft a running back with each of your picks from rounds 7 through 12. Six straight picks at running back will yield an RB2. Congrats.

This is the biggest error I see early-round tight end and quarterback drafters make. They assume they can bulk up on running backs in the middle rounds, hoping one hits. Because, really, if you go with a quarterback or tight end at the beginning of a fantasy draft, you’re often left drafting your second or third running back around this time. And even if you only go with running backs after getting your tight end in, say, Round 1 (Jimmy Graham), you’re decreasing your chances of getting two full-blown top running backs dramatically. And, as I showed earlier in the off-season, running backs are madly important to this fantasy football equation.

You begin throwing running back darts once you reach the middle rounds of your draft. So while you might look at the bust rates of early-round running backs and say to yourself, “Man, why am I wasting a first-round pick on this guy when there’s a decent chance he doesn’t live up to his high expectations?”, perhaps you should realize that the reason you’re doing this is because, after rounds five or six of your fantasy draft, the chance of you landing any sort of relevant running back is incredibly slim.

The truth is, drafting a running back in the middle-to-late rounds (it's just as bad once you get past RB48) can often times be less meaningful than simply waiting to get a guy off the waiver wire once the season begins. Fantasy owners often get arrogant in thinking they’ve found the next Alfred Morris, but the chance of you finding another one – if you were picking running backs at random – would be minimal.

Of course player evaluation comes in handy, considering you’re not drafting these running backs without a little bit of thought. But passed the fifth or sixth round, you’re not gaining a whole lot of value.

This is why owners misunderstand bust rates. While the rates aren’t good at the top of a fantasy draft, the rates decrease at a rapid pace at the running back position once you get to the middle rounds. The reason for this is more than likely because of the demand of the position, and also because of the information we know going into a season is, well, bad. It’s becoming a tough position to predict.

To be fair, none of this really matters without context of the other positions. What if quarterbacks and tight ends begin to see bust rates at a faster pace? What if the drop-off at WR30 is more significant than it is at RB30?

We'll look into that next.