5 Lessons Learned In 2016 To Help Us Draft Better Running Backs In 2017

By on February 8, 2017
Running Backs In 2017 Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall

Trying to figure out what went wrong at the end of the Fantasy Football season is common for owners. When Fantasy owners draft a running back early in the draft and then that player gets injured or under-performs, their season is often doomed.

Looking back on the 2016 Fantasy Football season, we try to figure out what can help us draft better running backs in 2017. What lessons were learned?

Instead of losing sleep over what went wrong, let’s look ahead. Let’s take a look at what happened last year so we can predict for the future.

Learning from the past is key in all aspects of life. But this is a Fantasy website and we are So-Called Fantasy Experts (we’ll let someone else handle the life lessons).

We’ll take a look back at the 2016 performances by running backs to see where trends lie for the future and any important lessons learned.

5 Lessons Learned In 2016 To Help Us Draft Better Running Backs In 2017

#1: You don’t have to draft a running back early

According to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, six running backs were drafted in the first round: Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson, Lamar Miller and LeVeon Bell. Half of those picks worked out well for Fantasy owners. However, Peterson got injured and was a waste of a first round pick (in retrospect). Gurley and Miller finished in the Top 20, but certainly not the Top 10 of running backs.

The counter argument is that David Johnson scored the fourth-most Fantasy points (in PPR formats) out of all players. Elliott was 13th and Bell was 17th. All three scored more than Antonio Brown, Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Jordy Nelson. The key here is drafting the right running back early. Often, that’s easier said than done. All six of those running backs had risks associated with them at the beginning of the season.

On draft day, the best advice is to draft the best, safest player on the board in the early rounds. Looking ahead to next year, the case can be made for all three of Elliott, Johnson and Bell. Odds are those three players will be the first three off the board on draft day. However, after that, hold off before reaching on a running back.

#2: But don’t wait too long to draft a running back

Some players like to use what’s called the “zero running back” theory, where they wait as long as possible before drafting a running back. This strategy can work with a bit of luck. The owner who drafted Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Matt Ryan and Melvin Gordon certainly isn’t complaining. However, if you waited until the fifth round to get a running back, your options were thin.

Ryan Mathews went in the fifth round, Frank Gore in the sixth and plenty of others who did not make any Fantasy impact in 2016. Playing the “zero running back” theory involves getting solid players early and hitting on lottery tickets in the later rounds. If you got Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon in the sixth and eighth rounds, you likely didn’t fare well in 2016.

Overall, the “zero running back” strategy is hard to abide by in leagues where you start at least two, if not three, running backs. It’s a gamble that sometimes pays off. However, while you don’t need to draft a running back in the early rounds, you shouldn’t wait too long either.

#3: Know your league’s scoring

This sounds like a given. Know the league’s scoring and know how running backs can vary in terms of Fantasy points depending on if a league gets points per reception or not. For example, players like Bilal Powell and Darren Sproles have significantly more Fantasy value in PPR leagues than standard leagues. In a full point per reception format, Powell and his 58 receptions finished 16th among all running backs. Sproles had 52 receptions and finished 24th.

Knowing which running backs are prone to getting targets on the team will help when knowing which running backs to draft. For the past two seasons, five players have appeared on the list of the most targets at the running back position: the aforementioned Sproles and Powell, plus Devonta Freeman, Theo Riddick and Duke Johnson, Jr.

Know the teams that utilize a passing down back as well. James White, star of the Super Bowl, is the passing down specialist for the Patriots, clearly surpassing Dion Lewis on the depth chart. White had the third-most targets and receptions among running backs in the league (and was drafted in the 10th round, on average). In addition, the New Orleans Saints, like the Patriots, love using the running back position as another receiver on the field. Keep that in mind on draft day next year.

#4: Touchdowns are fluky

At the beginning of the season, if someone promised you a 1,000-yard rusher with 18 touchdowns (the most by a running back in the league), where would you draft him? Second round? First? He’ll finish within the Top 10 in terms of Fantasy points among running backs if that helps. LeGarrette Blount went at the end of the seventh round in 2016.

What if I also told you that was 12 more rushing touchdowns than Blount scored in 2015? Here’s the reality: touchdowns are fluky. You cannot chase touchdowns because you never know who is going to score. In 2015, Jeremy Hill, Adrian Peterson, DeAngelo Williams and Devonta Freeman led the league in rushing touchdowns (all tied with 11).

In 2016, Freeman continued with 11 touchdowns, while Williams and Peterson fell off the Fantasy radar. Hill had nine touchdowns. When looking at Fantasy stats while preparing for the 2017 season, look at touchdowns, but don’t rely heavily on that stat.

#5: Don’t count your season over too soon

So you drafted Adrian Peterson in the first round. That didn’t work out so well. While it is hard to recover from losing an early round pick (or dealing with Todd Gurley-esque struggles), the waiver wire can always be your best friend.

In 2016, Jay Ajayi was drafted in the ninth round on average. In many leagues, he was dropped early in the season. He finished 11th in terms of Fantasy points and was picked up on the waiver wire in many leagues. Of course, for every Ajayi, there’s also a Dwayne Washington who had the makings of Fantasy promise, but never amounted to what owners hoped.

Playing the waiver wire is important, regardless of who you drafted. Quite often, the playoff teams in Fantasy leagues have players that were undrafted. It’s a matter of luck, sure, but according to ESPN, in 61 percent of leagues, a team that made the playoffs had Robert Kelley (undrafted) on their roster. Also undrafted, Jordan Howard was on playoff teams in 59 percent of leagues. Use the waiver wire to your advantage and you can overcome an early round bust.

Sarah Lewis
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Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis (formerly Sarah Bojarski) once spent an entire cocktail hour at a wedding reception answering Fantasy Football start/sit questions on Twitter. She has been writing about Fantasy Football for five seasons now, and is always willing to talk draft strategy with anyone looking to win their league. Follow her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32
Sarah Lewis
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