What Is a Waiver-Wire Running Back Actually Worth in Fantasy Football?
Not too far down the road, that's what we're going to have to hear when we tell the younger generations that we used to draft running backs early in fantasy football.
I mean, about a decade ago, average draft position lists basically started out with a list of each team's starting running back with a quarterback and receiver sprinkled in here and there.
By now, though, we're smart enough to realize that blindly clicking the "draft" button on whichever running back is next up in the queue may not be optimal. Accordingly, there's a whole "Zero RB" movement going on in fantasy football.
Why target early-round running backs when replacements are popping up nearly every week on the waiver wire and can produce for your squad?
In theory, this all sounds amazing, and it's not wrong at its core by any means. The catch is that you still have your work cut out for you when it comes to running backs -- it's just a different kind of work. You don't have to worry as much about running back injury (in fact, you kind of are rooting for it so that your second-string players and waiver-wire pickups get opportunities to be starting running backs).
You do, however, have to identify which backs are going to be given the those opportunities to produce for your fantasy team as well as be good enough to cash in on those chances once they inevitably arise.
We all know that these season-saving guys pop up every year -- David Johnson, Justin Forsett, C.J. Anderson, Charcandrick West -- so, seriously, what's the reason not to bail on running backs in the draft?
Because it's hard. That's why.
I love a good waiver-wire pickup as much as the next person, but I've had my fair number of Ben Tate shares in my day. That's one reason why I can't help but think that, when I do get a player such as Dion Lewis on my squad, I'm kind of lying to myself that I "knew" it'd work out. Hindsight bias really comes into play with fantasy football, and that seems especially true with player evaluation.
But if you've dabbled in fantasy football discourse before, you've likely heard of hindsight bias. A psychological phenomenon that might actually be a little more accurate for how useful waiver-wire pickups can be is known as "rosy retrospection." This is what causes us to remember past events as more positive than they really were (i.e. seeing things through rose-colored glasses). Ever go to a theme park when it was 95 degrees and spend a total of six hours in line and six minutes on actual rides only to want to go back there again next year? That's rosy retrospection. You think it was more fun than it really was.
If you think you've had a good run with waiver-wire running backs since 2010, you're either an infallible deity at player evaluation and team speculation regarding playing time (and don't need to read this) or your glasses have some rosy tint on them.
However, two big problems with fantasy football research when it pertains to waiver-wire pickups are that there are a lot of them each season and very few work out. Separating which guys were supposed to be worth the pickup and those who were merely speculative adds can be tricky, especially when the speculative adds (such as a David Johnson) break out in a big way.
Overall, it's easy to go back through game logs for waiver-wire guys who actually hit and see how good they were, but this can also overlook the fact that these guys may have been unowned in that first week (or two) of a useful stretch. It also can overlook which guys tanked after a big game and an influx in waiver-wire adds, and that's not good when we're trying to figure out how easy it is to pick up and play waiver-wire backs.
There are a lot of variables in this. So what can we do to try to figure out what actually happens when running backs are added from the waiver wire?
What I did was tally up week-by-week waiver-wire additions -- via FleaFlicker.com -- over the past six seasons (from 2010 through 2015). This will show us which players actually got picked up at a high volume during a given week in a given year. We'll then examine how these players fared after being picked up, according to weekly positional fantasy finishes (based on PPR scoring).
The samples analyzed comprise the 30 most-added, single-week additions up to and including Week 14, thus giving us at least Weeks 14, 15, and 16 to study after the pickup occurred for the late-season additions. The intent here is twofold: to see how the "most obvious" additions actually performed after being added to fantasy rosters and to weed out more speculative additions who were added over multiple weeks. After all, it's easy to add and stash a player in Week 2 only to have him be useless until Week 10 before getting a chance to start, but you might have cut him by then or he might never become useful, causing you to miss out on other potential waiver-wire adds.
You can consider those -- à la David Johnson in 2015 -- a success, but I'd like to introduce you to players such as Knile Davis, Bishop Sankey, and Christine Michael as examples why we should pump the brakes on such speculative additions. Sure, there were a lot of reasons why Johnson paid off and the others didn't (mainly that he's #good at football and the others really aren't), but you never knew if or when he was going to get a chance to perform, and if you did, you should check your glasses for rose-colored tint.
There's a reason I'm beating this dead horse before moving onto the results, but now we can trek forward.
Because of the legwork this type of research requires, I started in 2015 and honestly didn't expect to go back much further. I figured we'd get something useful from the initial wave of data. However, when I saw how waiver-wire backs performed in 2015, I had to keep going -- because it told me everything and nothing at the same time.
The below list is sorted by the most adds in a single week. Cells colored green indicate a top-12 week among PPR running backs. Yellow is a finish between 13 and 24, white is 25 to 36, red is worse than 36, and grey is a zero (either a bye week, injury, or just flat out zero points). "Week -2" refers to the player's weekly PPR rank among running backs two weeks before a player was added, "Week -1" was the week before he was added, "Week 1" refers to his first game post-pickup, and so on.
How did things look in 2015?
But if you'll notice, Johnson actually makes the list twice: after Week 3 and after Week 13. So, let me ask you this: how many of you had Johnson on your roster early on only to drop him because of how infuriating the Arizona backfield was and how adamant that Bruce Arians was on limiting his touches and focusing on Chris Johnson? (I'm raising my hand.) Sure, it was a terrible choice -- in hindsight -- but it really did look like the David Johnson train was going to be derailed for 2015.
Still, there's a good amount of green and yellow in that Week 1 column, particularly near the top of the list, which means the most sought-after waiver wire pickups panned out early on in 2015. Chalk one up for the waiver-wire advocates.
Of course, we still have to figure out if those good performances are the norm or if the bottom portion of this table (lots and lots of red) is more of what actually happens over a larger sample.
So what about 2014?
That one has significantly more red, but hey, C.J. Anderson and Justin Forsett were league-winning saviors. I'm not disputing that. However, they were exceptions, not rules.
What we have so far, though, is that 2014 was a fairly terrible year for the big-wave waiver-wire pickups, and 2015 was significantly better. We can't stop here and make useful deductions because we don't know which is more likely or if one is just an anomaly, so we're going to zoom out and fast forward a bit.
Here is how things have gone down for the 180 backs who made up the top-30 single-week adds over the past six seasons if you exclude weeks that yielded zeroes.
There's a lot to examine here. Let's start in that Week -1 column. Naturally, a decent amount of the sample (62 of the 171 backs with a result, 36.3%) offered up a top-12 running back week before getting added. However, only 20.6% of the 171 backs (so, 34 of them) returned an RB1 week after being picked up, and 23.0% offered an RB2 week. This means that a total of 43.6% (72 of the 171) of the top adds returned a top-24 week the week after being added. That's good news.
The bad news, though, is that you had the same 43.6% chance to pick up a running back and get a result of RB37 or worse the week after adding him. Again, we're focusing on the 30 most-added guys in a single season so that we can try not to taint the sample with wildly speculative adds who would bog down these results.
If you include the no-show games (byes, injuries, and other reasons for zeroes), things get even less promising, which stands to reason, but we can't pretend like one useful week on a top waiver claim before becoming a useless asset was a slam dunk addition to your team.
The truth of the matter is that you've had about a 40% chance -- at best -- to get useful weeks from a waiver-wire running back over a large sample, and it's basically more likely than not that you're picking up a player who will return RB37 value or worse during the weeks following the addition.
I actually want this to spit out something a little more promising for waiver-wire pickups because it feels like the top adds each year (like when a star running back gets hurt and a clear backup takes over) pan out fairly often. So let's examine just the top-10 pickups from each season. This will exclude guys who are dealing with committee work and really hone in on the "best" and most obvious adds each year.
How does that make the data look?
Damn. The RB12 or better hit rate jumps to 26.3%, which makes sense, and there's a 42.1% chance that, if a top-10 waiver wire add plays, you're getting an RB24 or better performance.
But that's counterbalanced by a 40.4% chance to whiff on even an RB36 (or better) performance. Now, the RB24 or better mark actually skews to 56.3% in Week 2, which is better than the rate in Week 1, and the bust chance (RB37 or worse) drops to 25.0%.
That could be helpful, but it can also be misleading because it's bookended by that 40.4% chance and 41.7% chance for a terrible outing. This suggests that you have to have the confidence to roll out a prominently added back after a weak initial outing.
We can eradicate the zero outings, and things look this way.
You might be able to spend your top waiver-wire claim or a significant portion of your free-agent budget on that no-brainer running back addition, but you're really just investing in a less than 50% chance that you're going to get a useful running back.
Simply put, it's far from a guarantee that the hot waiver commodity is going to be a fruitful addition to your team and the probability suggests that you're going to whiff fairly often on these popular pickups.
Making This Actionable
Not relying on the waiver wire to find your running backs is a good start.
But in seriousness, it's a real gamble to take an active approach of neglecting the running back position during your fantasy drafts. Of course, this doesn't even factor in how non-waiver-wire backs perform throughout the season. And it's not to suggest that a waiver-wire back is going to be worse than who is already on your roster. It's just that running backs tend to bust at a high rate after the first few rounds of fantasy drafts, and we just saw the odds of getting a starting-caliber running back from the waiver wire.
That still doesn't tell us everything, though. League settings matter. If you're in a PPR league that requires you to start three receivers and allows you the ability to flex another, you can probably stay afloat or even thrive with this gamble on waiver-wire running backs. But if you go all-in on a hot waiver-wire commodity, you still aren't any more likely to get big production from him right away.
The overarching takeaway, to me, is that these league-winning running backs off of the waiver wire are exceedingly rare, and even when there's a clear path for a player to excel (resulting in a big swing in additions), it's about as likely that he'll bust as yield anything helpful for your fantasy team.
Is the same true for waiver-wire receivers?