What Do First-Round Fantasy Football Running Back Busts Look Like?

No one wants to draft a failure of a running back in the first round. What can you do to avoid doing so?

Plenty of fantasy owners are opting to treat the running back position in drafts like an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians: they're avoiding it as much as possible.

I can understand why. Injuries happen most at the position (I'm looking at you, Arian Foster), running backs seem to always drop off the face of the earth (hey there, Steve Slaton), and wide receivers are just more fun to draft (right, Odell Beckham owners?)

Based on a  bust rate study performed last offseason, I'm still of the belief that a lot of these concerns are overblown. And if you want an elite running back -- essentially the best players in fantasy football, year in and year out -- you have to spend a lot of equity at the position to obtain one.

I'm not here to push the early-round running back strategy on you today, though. Instead, the goal is to look at the profiles of these running backs and see why they do indeed bust.

What do first-round fantasy football running back busts look like?

The Study

To be transparent, there are thousands of ways to define a bust in fantasy football, which is why I think it's silly to argue about them without any sort of parameters. So let's set some guidelines.

A bust isn't just a player who fails to live up to his average draft position. How is that fair, after all, for a player like Jamaal Charles, who's consistently ranked as a top-five running back? All of a sudden, if he finishes as the sixth best back, he's a bust?

Get real.

No, a bust should be a player who performs  far worse than what you drafted him for. And, to be honest, the term bust shouldn't be attributed to later-round picks -- the majority of those are simply fliers, so if they don't perform, who cares?

To keep things simple and concise, I took the top-10 preseason PPR running backs (the average draft position data is from over the last six seasons, and recorded the postseason results of these 60 backs. Both of these are arbitrary, inexact numbers -- the reason I chose top-10 backs is to ensure I'm capturing the entire first round of a normal PPR fantasy football draft, and I selected the last six seasons to have a reasonable sample of the modern day NFL.

To determine a bust, I made note if the player ended as a generally unusable player, one who ranked worse than the 24th running back, or an RB2 in 12-team leagues. While some may consider a first-overall pick who finishes, say, 19th at the position a bust, the reason for choosing the RB2 spot was to completely ensure we're looking strictly at busts, and not some gray area.

Got it? Word. Let's dig into the results.

The Results

Of the 60 running backs, given the qualifications above, 15 ended up as busts. That falls in line with the  bust rate study done last offseason. Take a look at who these running backs were, along with a quick descriptor as to why they failed to live up to expectations.

Year Player Preseason Rank Postseason Rank Reason
2009 Matt Forte 4 34 Poor Play
2009 Steve Slaton 10 29 Poor Play
2010 DeAngelo Williams 9 60+ Injury
2011 Jamaal Charles 4 60+ Injury
2011 Darren McFadden 9 35 Injury
2012 Darren McFadden 5 25 Injury and Poor Play
2012 DeMarco Murray 7 26 Injury
2012 Maurice Jones-Drew 8 60+ Injury
2013 Doug Martin 2 60+ Injury
2013 Arian Foster 3 45 Injury
2013 CJ Spiller 5 27 Poor Play
2013 Trent Richardson 7 31 Poor Play
2014 Adrian Peterson 3 60+ Suspension
2014 Montee Ball 7 60+ Injury and Poor Play
2014 Doug Martin 10 60+ Injury and Poor Play

I was really tempted to not use Adrian Peterson in this study, because the suspension thrown down last season could've happened to any player at any other position. It just so happens that it occurred to a player who plays the most controversial position in fantasy football and, as a result, things are a little skewed.

If we look at the other 14 running backs, though, it's very obvious why these players are busting: injury. This isn't a surprise, nor should it be.

But what's sort of interesting is the fact that, of the players who were injured, many weren't due to old age and wear and tear. 

Year Year Reason Age
2010 DeAngelo Williams Injury 28
2011 Jamaal Charles Injury 24
2011 Darren McFadden Injury 24
2012 Darren McFadden Injury and Poor Play 25
2012 DeMarco Murray Injury 24
2012 Maurice Jones-Drew Injury 27
2013 Doug Martin Injury 24
2013 Arian Foster Injury 27
2014 Montee Ball Injury and Poor Play 23
2014 Doug Martin Injury and Poor Play 25

The average age among this group is 25.1, with a median of 24.5. That's close to the peak years for a running back -- and it's definitely not towards the downturn of a back's career.

On the other end, of the players who performed poorly, it's clear that each one wasn't established entering the season. Matt Forte's become one of the best fantasy running backs of this era, but 2009 was just his second year in the league. Same with Steve Slaton, minus the whole "becoming one of the best fantasy running backs" thing. Darren McFadden was highly drafted after only one strong season-long performance (and drafted again pretty high in 2012 thanks to a lack of competition at the position), while Doug Martin's burned us all over the last two seasons after beasting his rookie year.

None of this is an end-all to any sort of argument. Rather, it shows us a quick picture of why these backs aren't performing, and what these running backs actually look like.

What This Means for 2015

We've seen two things: (1) running backs who bust are generally young, not old and (2) inexperience seems to be a big reason backs bust due to poor play.

Your thoughts now may be, "Well, then I guess I'll be avoiding C.J. Anderson and Jeremy Hill this year!"

Not so fast. Keep in mind that there's no denominator to this equation -- we're simply looking at cumulative data. Even though young, sophomore running backs may have a lot stacked against them, what if a ton of young running backs are being selected in the early rounds of drafts? Then just a small proportion of them are actually busting. 

This isn't really the case, but I wanted to throw in that caveat. 

What this data shows, I think, is that narratives are generally just overblown. If you're avoiding a first-round running back because he's really old, that may not be the best idea given age -- within our smaller sample -- isn't a big factor. And generally speaking, the reason running backs of old age (Adrian Peterson, for instance) are first-round picks is because they're transcendent talents. Meanwhile, Frank Gore, in a fantastic situation in Indianapolis, has an average draft position roughly two-and-a-half rounds later thanks to his age being factored more heavily into his cost.

If your goal is to simply avoid busts and not go for the upside -- the players who, again, are the biggest difference makers in all of fantasy football -- then I would avoid Hill and Anderson. I also probably wouldn't bank on Justin Forsett.

But know that doing so can still cap your upside. If you want to win big, you still have to take risks.